Betwixt and Between: Our tryst with remote work

July 5, 2023
Betwixt and Between: Our tryst with remote work

Here is the story! Well sort of…

Over the past few months ‘remote work’ as a point of discussion has attained some sort of celebrity status. And for obvious reasons too. But truth be told, the idea has been around for over four decades.

Leaders and thinkers first began floating the idea of ‘telecommuting’ in the 1970’s; that is to say the mainstreaming of personal computing had something to do with it. Technology it seems was the primary hurdle. We can complain today about a lot of reasons as to why ‘remote working’ may be a tough nut to crack, but the lack of tech surely isn't one of them.

The first personal computer Kenbak-1 was released in 1971. Apple's first successful launch was the Apple II released in 1977

Infact, Peter Drucker the revered ‘futurist & social ecologist’ opinionated in his book “The Ecological Visions" in 1993 that travelling to office for work was nearing becoming an obsolete notion:

It is now infinitely easier, cheaper and faster to do what the 19th century could not do: move information, and with it office work, to where the people are. The tools to do so are already here: the telephone, two-way video, electronic mail, the fax machine, the personal computer, the modem, and so on

It didn't really but obviously his enthusiasm was premised on the spread of the Internet in the 90’s. Futurists as they say have the luxury of predictions that business owners seldom enjoy.

However, ‘remote work’ has also had its fair share of detractors and critics. Some of them are notable to say the least. 

Marissa Mayer, the former google executive, joined Yahoo in July 2012 as a CEO. In less than a year of joining, she made the Chief of HR, Jackie Reses shoot a memo to Yahoo employees that said,"to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices"

It didn't go down very well with the employees considering the memo marked "PROPRIETARY AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION – DO NOT FORWARD" soon found its way on a number of online forums through many disgruntled employees who thought of it as being a regressive move.

It further went on to say that, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings...Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."

In this regard it echoed the beliefs of Steve Jobs who was obsessed with designing Apple offices in a way that could catalyse ‘people encounters’. The reason being that social camaraderie is probably the most important albeit intractable cause of innovation. 

So, to say that while we have been flirting with the idea of ‘remote work’ for a long time, most were not prepared for a full fledged relationship yet; won’t be altogether wrong. 

Yet as stars would have it, that relationship is no longer a choice.

And discerning leaders and organizations would attest, there are already signs of trouble in paradise!

On the same page reluctantly

The one thing that COVID has done besides wreaking havoc on everything from our routines to businesses, is that for the first time it has brought all the stakeholders in remote work on the same page, even if reluctantly so. 

The remote work experiment is as live as it would ever be, even if it took a pandemic to jumpstart the revolution.

In the first three months of 2020, following the spread of the pandemic, Zoom’s daily active users jumped from 10 million to over 200 million. If reports are to be believed over 95% employees at Wipro and 94% employees at Infosys are currently telecommuting.

TCS, where already 95% employees are telecommuting, has plans to adopt the 25/25 operating model by 2025, requiring only 25% of its employees to be in the office at a time and only spend 25% of their time physically at their desk. Making this an onset of the ‘new normal’.

But this onset of ‘the new normal’ isn't without its own issues. A recent survey by SCIKEY MindMatch indicated that 99.8% of employees working from home in the IT sector lack at least one of the qualities - resistance to learning and exploring (95 per cent), absence of practical communication skills (65 per cent) and poor planning and execution (71 per cent).

The survey might not speak for all the sectors or all the organisations that have had to switch to remote work, but surely, this collective betrothal with ‘Remote Work’ has its fair share of trouble :

Imagine Tony Soprano working remotely!
  1. Inexperience: Organisations and employees with no history of telecommuting are now traversing uncharted waters with little guidance to lean on.
  2. Virtual Cohabitation: Anyone would tell you long distance relationships are a tough nut to crack. You haven’t seen your esteemed colleagues for a long time and no one knows what the hell is going on. Intrigue, suspicion, insecurity…In the meanwhile work suffers.
  1. Leaders are challenged: The experienced and elderly find themselves in a pickle wondering how they can adjust their routines to reach out to all the family members (read employees) that need support.
  2. Technological Inadequacy: One would think that all parties involved in running that ship you call your organization are equipped adequately with technology, the skills to operate technology and the etiquettes to survive this messy techno-digital relationship. The truth is most of them are not.
  3. The Community, the camaraderie: Everyone misses the gatherings and the gossip. It’s not easy to run a business without all the talk. The talk is important.

Make haste slowly 

Dostoyevsky once said,”Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.” Of course, his remarks came from his experiences in the Siberian gulag, and not in relation to the limiting aspects of ‘remote work’. But the point is that people trying to adapt to drastic and unexpected changes adopt impulsive new behaviours and tend to significantly alter their old ones.

It has been around six months since most of us stepped into the ‘remote work’ regime. And if the ‘21 days’ rule is anything to go by, there are new habits that many of us have incorporated into our routines without even realizing so.

These habits might be good, they might be bad. But over time, these collective changes would coalesce and mutate ‘organisational culture’ in companies in unthinkable ways. These changes would indeed percolate and define sectoral changes over the next few months and even for years to come.

A failure to secure professional guidance not only to adopt productive behaviours to address the ‘remote work’ woes but also to acknowledge and make sense of latent behaviorisms that employees exhibit can adversely affect shared values and culture in organisations. 

It is not surprising that soft-skills have figured as the highest priority in the LinkedIn Workplace Survey, for two years in a row. Companies, who wouldn’t want to risk losing the significant gains they have made over the years in terms of organisational culture, must make haste slowly to address this burgeoning gap in people skills.

Behaviorisms and soft-skills to fine tune them are entwined with each other in such a manner , that holistic methods are a requisite. Perhaps a journey approach to retraining people on people skills is the need of time, given the scale of change. 

(Enparadigm has launched ‘Remote Work Capability journeys’ to help companies address competency areas to get around their ‘Remote Work’ issues. To know more about how you can un-complicate remote work for your employees, reach us here.)

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