Dear First-Time Remote Workers,
Software dev by day, story teller by night.
Programmer for Ford. University of Michigan alum.
Why “forced” distributed teams are not indicative of what remote work is usually like
In the wake of a pandemic, many companies are looking at remote work for answers.
It’s easy to assume remote work will be a “plug and play” solution to this crisis. Remote work keeps employees safe and productive as well.
Unfortunately, my prediction is that many workers will have a miserable first-time experience. It’s not going to be easy to get back to the same productivity that they’re used to.
Jarring cultural changes, faulty VPN, and the backdrop of our remote work will cast a shadow on the success of other distributed work. My fear is that “working from home” is going to get a bad rap.
The truth of the matter is, this is a scary and bizarre time. This is not indicative of what it’s usually like to work from home.
For Starters, There’s Going to Be a Culture Shock
Contrary to popular belief, many teams are already used to making themselves available online. My co-workers at Ford keep up on Slack, email, and WebEx with lightning speed. I doubt workers will find it hard to make themselves available online.
What is going to be hard is not having the ability to “grab a room” when the email chain gets too complex to sort through.
By going distributed, you don’t gain anything — all the online tools are still there. Instead, you lose the ability to have an in-person meeting. It’s going to be harder to find solutions without that tool in the toolbox.
On the optimistic side, video calls and screen sharing capabilities will soften the blow. Being patient with others and yourself is going to be very necessary. Many of your common extroverted-workflows for fixing problems will change.
Be prepared for a different “feel” to work. You may not get your question answered as quickly. You may feel more alone when solving issues.
Lacking Hardware Is Going to Be a Week #1 Killer
If you’re planning a trip to Antarctica, you need to bring the right gear. You need to bring a nice windproof and waterproof coat. Maybe some thermal gloves. Definitely something to feed the penguins!
Much in the same way, working from home requires hardware — a good camera, microphone, and something to feed the dog!
I suspect many developers and business people will be woefully underprepared.
If you can, grab as much “stuff” from the office as you can before it closes. Buying monitors and a mouse is not what you should be doing with your time or money!
What you can’t prepare for is VPN and internet issues. Many companies will not have an internet infrastructure to support remote workers. This is an annoyance many distributed teams will have to deal with.
The Backdrop of COVID-19 Simply Makes This Environment Rough
The best part about working from home is the freedom.
In the office, you may feel some pressure to take shorter breaks or shorter lunches. You may feel pressure to stay extra late or come in early.
When you work remotely, you get this sense of being the master of your own destiny. As long as you’re getting your work done, then you get more freedom.
Maybe a “working from home break” looks like going to the gym, walking the dog, or going grocery shopping. I suspect many first-time distributed teams are not going to appreciate this culture. They may even mandate that a team member be online from a strict 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Moreover, though, remote workers understand how important it is to get out of the house. They might work from a WeWork or some shared creative space. They go to the gym. They go to concerts. They go to restaurants midday and after work.
You can’t do any of that in a COVID-19 era. Working from home is going to be followed by more… home. That’s going to be psychologically challenging.
I encourage distributed workers to take walks and get out of the house as much as possible. Keep in mind that usually distributed work feels a lot more liberal than this.
Context Matters — First Time Remote Workers Will Need to Adjust
With great power comes great responsibility. Just because remote workers have newfound freedoms, they also need to exercise excellent time management skills on themselves.
It’s going to be tough to learn how to be productive at home — where workers are used to relaxing. Context does matter. If an employee is used to working at their desk in the office, it’s easy to stay productive there.
Creating a space within your own home that is designated for work will be crucial. Turning the “videogame table” into a workspace may be a tricky context shift for first-time remote workers.
Having said all of this, I imagine that many first-time remote workers will learn to enjoy it at some level. But it’s certainly not “plug and play.” There are serious risks and challenges to switching to remote work.
Additionally, if you do end up hating working remotely, please understand that this is an unusual time. This social experiment really isn’t a great test for what remote work really is like.
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