If you want to crack remote working, talk to a freelancer.
One clear winner from a year with so many lows (2020) was the distributed workforce. By so many accounts it was truly a Goldilocks year for the concept. Our hand may have been forced but we may be finally able to jettison the stigma of remote working being incompatible with productivity and see the benefits of a more progressive approach to how work is done well. And for so many of us, we just had to make it work.
But as the world finally embraces remote working in a collective way, I think it’s important to appreciate that working remotely is essentially working in isolation. This isolation can obviously be channelled in positive productivity outcomes — focused, distraction free work; better control of ones own schedules and; a greater democratisation of talent available for work.
But I think it’s important to appreciate the flip side to this isolation coin and realise that companies need to invest in the pastoral side of remote working in order to curb the negative aspects isolation and all of its associated effects.
I know there have been exceptions to remote working this past year. Large parts of the economy weren’t able conduct their professions remotely. Even in sectors where remote working was possible, there were still large numbers of people who were forced on furlough or associated government schemes. Then there were those who lost their jobs entirely. But I believe that as the economy recovers, there will be a consolidated shift to find a new normal for the labour market where remote working is more than just saying to your boss: “I need to prepare for this presentation on Friday so I’m working from home tomorrow morning” and more: “I choose to join/work at this company because of its progressive approach to remote working”.
The distributed workforce is not a new invention and the path many of us have taken follows a familiar pattern previous generations have trodden. Unsurprisingly it goes hand-in-hand with technological advancements throughout modern history.
How did we get here?
Let’s do a short journey through the history of labour market to the present day. And since we finished 2020 with The Queen’s Gambit knocking off Tiger King from its lofty perch on Netflix, let’s do it in three moves.
Move 1: Civilisation moves from a predominantly agrarian society to a mass production juggernaut. First thanks to the development of steam power and mechanical production followed by electrical power enabling mass production and the division of labour. People migrate to cities and labour is concentrated to where the output occurs (factories).
Move 2: Manufacturing gives way to technology. And whilst technology makes further strides in manufacturing, it also is the biggest catalyst for the shift in power to banking and finance.
Move 3: The internet changes everything. From human interactions to how business is done. It made the world smaller and more accessible. At the same it helped us imagine a future much bigger than previously thought attainable.
None of us have to be Einstein to know how destructive COVID-19 would have been to civilisation as we know it if the world didn’t have the technological resources to combat the pandemic, inform and remain connected during this time.
So now we’re caught up. Where to from here?
2020: The Goldilocks of years for remote working.
Even though 2020 started like most other years, every economy around the world needed to take drastic action to both maintain the livelihoods of their citizens as well as adopt news ways of working to maintain as many industries as possible.
By March, whatever preferences we all had around where work was done, changed overnight to a mandate towards remote working. The world had to adapt or face extinction and considering the reason, ie. a global pandemic, the language of extinction seems more appropriate than hyperbolic.
This mandate combined with technology and a real change in attitude towards being off-site, made for a seismic shift in how things got done. Companies big and small were (and still are) executing new ways of working to facilitate such a change. And it was more than purchasing a teams account on Zoom. Policies changed, infrastructure created and real debate occurred in how best to keep teams connected and culture thrive during this time.
And here’s the thing I know, and probably taken me too long to get to in this post — no other sector has normalised the idea of remote working like the freelance industry.
Why? Because within the DNA of every freelancer that I have met over last 25 years in the creative and tech world, has been the drive for excellence via independence. The drive to be better at their craft and a pride in excelling in autonomy. It’s not an easy task putting yourself out there in a competitive market; to search for new opportunities at a much higher cadence than someone in a permanent position. But freelancers do this on a regular basis.
And it’s because of this very fact that they are such a wise bet as the world embraces remote working like never before.
Is it business as usual albeit from the kitchen table?
As more business is done remotely, and at greater levels of success, we need think about building the correct infrastructure to make remote working standard operating procedure. Once again you can look to the freelance industry. They have had to deliver on your projects objectives from the moment they walk in the door (or turn on Zoom as the story now goes). They do this even when they are not as engrained in vision and purpose of your company. These tactically deployed specialists come in to get the job done.
So what questions are you asking to make the remote opportunity as viable as it can be? Here’s a few we asked and manage at YunoJuno for our own internal teams:
How do we communicate with the whole company?
How do teams communicate with each other?
What is the cadence for the above?
How are leadership directives disseminated?
How is company culture fostered and are there opportunities for physical interaction?
What is the recognition and reward process?
What does conflict resolution look like in a virtual setting?
Ultimately you want everyone in your organisation on the same page and rowing in the same direction but I think this a real moment to redefine what that actual means and how it is manifested in the day-to-day operation of your company.
Let’s not forget the other incredible opportunities of the distributed workforce!
Remote working is a true game changer when thinking about diversity and inclusion. Your available talent pool has just expanded to the millions. And whilst this may lead to a daunting prospect of choice overload, I choose to believe that this an incredible opportunity for the entire company to interact with a diverse group and thus expanding world-views and seeing different perspectives on problems within the organisation. How many of us picked up a four-year-old sweater and asked “does this bring me joy?” before Marie Kondo became our life coach?
How about the opportunities for gender equality that a remote first model gives? We know that women bear a greater proportion of challenges juggling family life and maintaining their careers to their male counterparts. If a remote first or a hybrid approach to in-office time opens up opportunities to rebalance responsibilities in so many households, isn’t this nothing but a win win?
What about remote working’s effect on employees mental health?
It’s no secret that there is also a loneliness epidemic for huge sections of society and in particular — 20-somethings. Couple that with a forced low-touch (no pun intended) approach to work when you are starting out in your career and things can get pretty lonesome.
So who better to play leadership role in designing a more responsive organisational structure for remote working as well as a critical mentor/advisory role in helping to build resilience, togetherness and culture in a new hybrid/remote-first model than the people who operate this way 24/7 — freelancers.
These are just some of the areas that need rethinking in a post-COVID remote-first world. But there is a real opportunity of building a brave new world here. One where a team member can feel both part of a larger vision as well as maintaining control over how they work to best deliver against that vision for you.