Remote Work: An Idea That Never Was
Remote Work was once the future. With falling costs of communication, cool technologies and devices that are increasingly capable, and a need for specialised talent that may not be geographically concentrated, there was a lot of reason why Remote Work was logical, not to mention traffic congestion, urban pollution and lifestyle. Every company was expected to go remote - sooner or later - and some of the world's largest and most progressive companies took lead.
But that is now past. This week, as IBM seems to be rolling back remote work and wanting to geographically concentrate at least some of its departments, it is no longer an isolated idiosyncrasy! There is a long line of precedences - the Marissa Mayer moment of banning telecommuting at Yahoo, the Atos moment of banning email at office and encouraging people to people conversation instead, the US Patent Office's jaw-dropping moment of realisation on how widespread the abuse of its WFH system was, and indeed, something that small businesses already figured out - working from home is often working for home! Remote work seems to be an idea whose time has come and gone, or actually, never came.
Why should it be so, when there is really so much going for remote work? That some people lack the discipline can not undermine a revolutionary idea, and it is not about people slacking off, as it may seem from stories above. It is more than that, and the failure of remote work points to the limitations of the other tech-utopias and an useful pointer on how not to get ahead of oneself. And, such a reality check would indeed do a world of good, not just in the world of business, but also in other areas, like education, where we imagine that these cool technologies of content and communication would make face-to-face meetings and conversations completely redundant.
It does no such thing. There are two limitations of Working from Home. First, technologies are not yet that good. Most people don't have access to dedicated Internet links and videoconferencing equipments, and is there anyone who wants to claim Skype works perfectly? The collaborative tools have certainly got smarter - I used Slack and Google Docs all the time - but they are not yet at the stage the technology gurus claim them to be. I use the best quality Fibre Optic broadband at home, but the connection falters at times, for whatever reason. I tend to think I need to upgrade my router, but even in that - that the router needs to be upgraded by the users themselves - there is a clue why WFH may not be as efficient as one would claim.
Second, the space and the environment. Even when you have a dedicated space at home to work - and that is not the Kitchen table as it is the case with many people - it may not be the most ideal space to do work. Microsoft's reason to pull back on remote work is just that - people do better work in an environment carefully designed for such work - and not that the employees were slacking. Remote work still remains the poor alternative.
I have worked remote for the last year or so. It was good timing, as the local train services in Southern London were blighted by strikes and disruptions throughout the year. In a way, I escaped the daily struggle that my friends, who had to travel to the city every day for work, had to do. And, yet, I feel so out of sorts now that I spent my own money to get access to one of the co-working spaces in the City and go up to work there at least couple of days a week. It makes no sense - it costs money and time - but I feel I am much more productive when I am in the environment of work. It is not just about my cramped workspace which is overflowing with too many books, or the temptation I feel for spending time with my son and make up for the lost time that I spent travelling over the years, but it is my desire to feel productive and engaged that makes me give up working from home. Indeed, I can't give up Remote Work even when I try - we have no offices in the UK - but as I look for new work, I am indeed looking for a local company where I can work with people.