Starting the post with “When I was a kid…” sounded proper until I realized this is the typical incipit of elder people talking about something that wasn’t around when they were youngsters. So I convinced myself to find an alternative incipit, but yeah, when I was young no one ever dreamed of working at home, the cave was where rocks and pebbles were and you had to fight your way with saber tooth tigers, wild mammoths, and velociraptors to get there.
The idea of remote working is not new. It gained popularity during the pandemic in the years 2020-2021, but it was already widespread in the technologically advanced industry. Once all your work is done on a computer, thanks to the innovative (but now more than 60 years old) idea of connecting a computer together at a distance – you may do your job anywhere a computer and an Internet connection are available.
In Italy, the idea has been pioneered in the 70s with the “Telelavoro” concept, which has been thoroughly regulated, with clear (and somewhat extensive) duties for the company and for the employee. A part of the employee’s home had to undergo the same regulations and restrictions that apply to the workplace.
It wasn’t until around 2010 that work-from-home / smart working became a thing. Even in the quite conservative companies I worked for, I had been given the option to spend some days at home should I need to focus free of interruptions and distractions.
Around 2016-2017 smart working was gaining traction in the software development industry. It worked, IMO as a backstep from outsourcing jobs to developing countries. The reason is that the hourly price tag for a software developer is not the only relevant feature.
Outsourcing has some advantages – such as resource management and accounting but has a number of drawbacks. Outsourcing companies try to keep their margin interesting, by having some juniors and a few seniors multiplexed over several projects. There are very professional companies where this does not apply, but overpromising and underdelivering are usually quite frequent.
From this mismatch the idea of hiring remote programmers, saving on the cost of having people in the office, also saving something by hiring programmers from areas where the life cost is lighter, offering them competitive wages, but saving w.r.t. more expensive regions.
Then the pandemic came and smart working was the only option to save lives and the economy at the same time. Every company reinvented itself as a remote working company.
The term “smart working” came into the common language with a semantic translation – the real “Smart Working” is when you can work from everywhere anytime and the evaluation of your work is based… well actually only on your work. The proper term for what has been improperly labeled is “Work from Home” (WFH), which is remote work where you spend the same time you would spend at the workplace, working from your home.
During the pandemic, working from home, full, and then hybrid (some days at the workplace, some days from home) was praised by everyone. Employees reporting higher efficiency in their activities were lauded and their claims were never confuted. The environment benefitted largely by having zero commuting.
Then the pandemic was over. And companies were left with the question – what should we do? The most stringent need for remote working is gone, should we continue or backpedal?
Some companies, notably Tesla, used this as a means to cut some jobs while not alarming the investors – they revoked any form of remote working, regardless of the proper availability of desks for everyone at the workplace.
Other companies started reducing work from home for various reasons. I’m going to contest those reasons.
Other departments need to work on-premise and cannot do WFH
This is one of the most recurring objections. It is the same motivation frequently used for not giving different working conditions to some company departments. E.g. working hours should be the same for all the employees in the company, regardless you work at the production assembly line or you work at your desk in the office.
Indeed there is a need for blue-collar to be in their working area at the right time because production cannot stop and the shifts are properly designed for this. On the other hand, the white collar that has no direct interaction with the production is not required to follow the same timetable. They could, but there is no objective need. Also maybe at the assembly line, some flexibility is possible, but working in shifts greatly reduces the margins for this.
Though if you extend this view to a larger scope it suddenly loses any credibility – if all the employees should undergo the same conditions, why aren’t the line workers paid as the managers?
So I don’t buy this reason for revoking WFH – yes there are differences in the roles of the workers in a company, the goal of the company should be to put workers in the best conditions to do their job. And this may mean – having A/C in the production plant, modern and adequate accident avoidance devices, proper working hours, areas for relaxation, and taking a break in order to keep the focus when it is needed.
Work is a social activity, you need to be present
I half buy this one, because it is usually prompted as – if I need any information I can go and ask the colleague who knows. This is really dysfunctional behavior. For one employee that gets their work done, there are countless employees that get interrupted, and their productivity plunges.
On the other hand, it is true that full remote doesn’t come for free – you need to adapt and work hard to have an effective full remote company. Most of all you must ensure that documentation is available, accessible, up-to-date, and usable. Discussions must be promoted and decisions must be properly routed and communicated. It is a delicate work of process and management.
If your team relies on being present to intercept precious information exchanged directly by two teammates then it can’t do remote working, but, I would add, it may have serious problems in completing the project.
Usually, a hybrid solution (some days from home, some days in presence), is a good compromise, letting some time for focus and some time for interaction. Still requires some management, but is much simpler to achieve than full remote.
Our business is going to suffer should remote working become the norm
Interestingly this reversed reason is what made some companies that produce smart working tools backpedal on the decision of turning their working model all from office.
I understand this is quite a great force and should pose some questions about the product or the business model itself. Here some considerations on where the world and humankind are going are due. In order to have a future we must decrease steeply the production of CO2. There is no other way around, and this means, for sure that some products (and therefore industries) will have to suffer. For the sake of humankind’s survival, such industries should take ethical stances and start differentiating their activities so that alternatives could become viable before the end of their current products is requested by-laws (or worse).
Considering the benefits for the environment that remote working is bringing today, it should be mandated by law, wherever possible. Additionally, this would free commuting resources to offer better conditions for those whose jobs cannot be made remote.
Also being clear that those saved CO2 come from unburned (and unbought) petrol derivatives, it is clear that petrol companies are likely against working from home.
This comparison may be a bit of a stretch, but it sure helps to set the idea – it was clear that abolishing slavery was going to damage some companies and some workers, nonetheless, it had to be done, and thankfully it was done.
I’m the boss and I cannot control what remote workers are doing.
This is never explicitly said – at least, I never heard myself. But I know this is an issue. Many bosses are convinced that productivity happens only under their vigilant eyes. Away from their prying sights, workers turn into sloppy lazy beings with the only ambition to cheat their company.
This is a big problem in that the boss should not be the warden, but the enabler. Not the one with the whip in hand shouting to results, but the one that understands the needs, helps in solving problems, and facilitates communications. All these activities may be performed remotely, with the occasional in-person meeting.
I want to trim down the headcount without too much fuss
They will never tell this, but it could be a reason. Actually quite effective at reducing the employees count. As it happens with this kind of maneuvers the employer has no control over who is going and who is staying. Possibly those more appealing to other employers will go and those less attractive will stay. Unless your company has unusual tastes, you’ll lose the employees you like most.
If you really had an excess workforce problem, then please face it with a proper attitude, clear and open communication, and with some incentives for the people you want to let go.
There are a number of reasons for keeping away from remote working, but most of them don’t hold a closer examination. The only objection I consider valid is that for a fully remote, quite some work is needed to make it effective.
Remote working statistics for 2023 report a number of benefits for the people, the profit, and the planet that should be a no-brainer choice.