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Is Remote Work a Sustainable Model? It depends how you define it.

As I type this from a trendy café, in a city that none of my co-workers live in, I can see at least four others tapping away on their own laptops. They’re presumably doing some kind of work too (although there is always the chance, they’re utilising the free WIFI to book flights to Costa Rica). The point is, while this is clearly an anecdote, this view isn’t a new one for me, or I’m sure, anyone frequenting coffee shops across the world’s biggest cities.

While the exact numbers vary, it’s clear that remote work is becoming increasingly popular. The Beurea of Labour Statistics stated that the number of U.S. employees who telecommuted increased by 115% between 2005 and 2015. Others say 99% of people would like to work remotely, even if they don’t currently.

In addition to these numbers, there’s increasingly a lot of talk about remote work. There are countless articles, podcasts, conferences, seminars and virtual communities all contributing to this growing scope.

It’s been celebrated, revered and touted as the saviour to our broken system. It supposedly offers more opportunity to underrepresented groups, better work-life balance, access to broader talent pools, flexibility, autonomy, it’s even meant to save you a tonne of money, be better for the environment, reduce stress and increase productivity all while making your social media followers incredibly envious of your poolside work station. It really does seem like the answer to all our problems.

Jokes aside, much of that has been true for me — although it is of course just one side of the coin.

With all of this in mind, it’s hard to imagine a time where remote work wouldn’t play at least some role in the way in which we work. But I thought that about black skinny jeans too, and it’s been years since I pulled on a pair.

Is remote work just a flashy fad having its moment in the sun or does it have the substance to actually deliver on all the promises of the zealous advocates?

How do you define sustainability, anyway?

Remote work isn’t a new concept – teleworking was coined around the early 70s, grew in popularity throughout the 90s and has since taken on new forms with the continual evolution of technology. 

That it still exists nearly 50 years after its initial emergence in the zeitgeist points to, at least on some level, the staying power of the model. 

But is this continued existence enough to dub the whole thing sustainable? 

Of course, sustainability could feasibly be defined differently from person to person, and staying power is undoubtedly important. But I think we can be more specific. 

For remote work to be sustainable, I think individuals have to be able to do their work without burning out, either from overwork or continued isolation and they have to have an opportunity for career progression. On a business level, remote work has to remain productive, be cost-effective, and maintain the company culture and goals. Further than this, on a society level, it has to be open, inclusive and diverse. It has to offer more opportunity, not less, and it has to do something other than perpetuate the same issues we find in co-located offices.

When looking at remote work with this lens, despite the potential for all of these things to be true — I’m not entirely convinced we’re there yet. In that sense, it seems we’re on our way, we just might need a little help getting there.

“It’s not hard, but it’s also not intuitive.”

 “Getting credible, authoritative assistance and support in making the transition is absolutely crucial for sustainable adoption,” says Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting, a management consulting firm. 

Laurel’s been working remotely for 13 years and got into consulting after an unfortunate experience working with a toxic distributed team. 

“I realised that there was very much a wrong way to lead a remote team,” she says. 

And as an operations manager, it was in her nature to start analysing the reasons behind what made some remote teams work and what made others fail. 

What she found, and continues to see, is that it isn’t necessarily an intuitive skill to work well remotely. Companies often fall into remote work without prior thought and they almost always run into problems at some point down the line. But while it’s not something that always comes naturally, it’s absolutely something you can learn how to do. 

Laurel and her team clearly have a vested interest in the consultant market, but what she’s talking about makes sense. 

As many reports come out parading the increase in productivity and happiness for remote workers, we see just as many revealing the struggles of isolation, loneliness and burn out. We’ve seen a slew of high-profile companies rolling back their remote work offerings completely, opting for a more traditional co-located system. Most notable was Yahoo! in 2012 but Best Buy, HP, Reddit, IBM, and Honeywell (just to name a few) followed suit soon after. 

“It’s kind of scary to think about how organically this is all changing,” Laurel says. “Here in the United States, 50% of our entire workforce is working remotely at least some of the time. However, only 3% of the workforce is actually identifying as remote-friendly.”

In a study of over 2000 global employees and managers, we see two-thirds of remote workers don’t feel engaged and over a third never get any face-time with their team despite over 40% agreeing it would help build deeper relationships. The same study suggested remote workers are much less likely to stay at their company long-term. With only 5% seeing themselves working at their company for their entire career, compared to almost a third that never work remotely. Not exactly the picture of a healthy, sustainable work environment. 

“As consultants, that’s our sense of urgency every day – we need to get to that 47%. We have to let them know what we know so that they can do this in the right way, in a way that is sustainable and beneficial for their company. If not, they’re going to be the next Yahoo!” Laurel says. 

From Laurel’s perspective, there are certain tenets that all remote companies need to implement, but from that starting point, it’s about tweaking them to work for the individual needs of each group. 

“It’s not hard,” she says. “but it’s also not intuitive.” 

Creating company-wide policy is a good way to enter into remote work thoughtfully

A sustainable remote work policy has to mandate clear communication across all channels – the best strategies include a range of video and text, asynchronous and synchronous, and work-related as well as more casual ‘water cooler’ style chatter. The key is to have this clearly laid out, from the top down, as an expectation. 

This is because despite all the advances in technology, new video programs, integrating emojis to communicate context and programs like Slack to facilitate chat, one thing is clear — we still have to choose to communicate. 

Ben Waber, a visiting scientist at MIT, found that communication tools are largely used among people who already see one another face to face over those located elsewhere. In a study of software developers, Waber found that workers in the same office communicated an average of 38 times about each potential issue they came across compared to about eight times between those in different locations. 

Similarly, in 1977, MIT Professor Thomas J. Allen studied the communication patterns among both scientists and engineers. He found that the further apart their desks were, the less likely they were to communicate. For those 30 metres or further, the likelihood of communicating regularly was zero. 

Even with technological advances, it still doesn’t seem natural for us to maintain the same level of communication with people who we aren’t already in regular, incidental, contact with. It seems we have to try – at least initially — to make regular communication a part of our remote work system. 

And yet, from her work with Distribute, Laurel has discovered that most companies don’t have a remote work policy at all. 

“It’s just individuals that are going to their managers and saying – can I work remotely because of this reason? And they say yes you can,” she says. 

“So, when that’s happening, because it’s not a companywide decision, the paperwork and compliance, information security, infrastructure, all of that kind of stuff is not being updated accordingly, nor is the manager being upskilled.”

Without this top-down direction and support, it’s easy to see how things can get out of hand. 

“[If you don’t have a strategy] you are at very high risk of running into some problems that are very very common in almost all people,” Laurel says. 

And the most common problems?

“Workers feel burnt out, they feel isolated or they feel micromanaged.” 

There will be challenges but the solution isn’t always to return to a co-located office

Sarabeth Flowers Lewis the co-owner and Saas copywriter/UX writer at Lewis Commercial Writing identifies with the feeling of isolation.

“When things start to feel slow, I get kind of down,” she says.

“Because of the come and go nature of this work, it’s not this programmatic thing where you know every month, you’re having this check-in with your supervisor where you need to talk about what you’ve achieved.”

In a bid to combat these ‘slumps’, Sarabeth has started writing about the topic. Speaking with a range of people has helped her identify strategies.

“We live in Austin because we have really good friends here but they don’t fully understand what we do or what the life is like as a freelancer or entrepreneur so that can feel kind of isolating at times,” she says.

“But sharing with others is so helpful. Find other people who are creating companies, who are freelancers, who do similar work. Tell people what you’re doing, and give them updates. Those conversations are like lifelines.”

She’s also a big believer in celebrating achievements. 

“Whether it’s on your website as a portfolio or just a list of logos from the companies you’ve worked with that’s really energising to be like, ‘oh yeah, we have done that!’” she says.

This self-check-in is something Laurel advocates for remote workers too.

Managers and workers have shared responsibility to make it work

“A lot of leaders say it’s the responsibility of the employee and the employees are saying, ‘well, I’m not getting what I need from my employer — It’s absolutely both,” she says.

Managing remote workers requires intentional check-ins, support and feedback. You can’t rely on noticing your team’s body language to alert you they’re not coping with the workload or have other issues going on. Equally, remote workers need to be active in sharing what they need, what they’re struggling with and what could help.

“When you’re a freelancer you are your own manager. You need to say, ‘ok I have to prevent career stagnancy and isolation because I know that those are common problems for remote workers. A company might do a, b and c in order to prevent that, I need to set aside a budget for continued learning and development in order to prevent that on my own.’”

For Sarabeth that looks like integrating continual learning into her regular routine.

“Something I really value is education and that’s something as freelancers we have more time for in some sense,” she says.

“If I have a free few hours in the afternoon after the projects are done for the day I’ll just read. That plus online resources – there are so many online courses these days.”

This regular self-analysis helps to shape career progression in an unstructured environment too.

“Every 3-6 months we have a conversation about [what we’re offering and the rates we set],” Sarabeth says. “With each client (for us at least) the clients have gotten progressively more interesting and the way we’ve branded ourselves has really helped that.”

But the planning and systems are not just to support your current employees. Tackling this with intention will have business-wide benefits. 

Thoughtful recruitment is an essential piece

We know that happier employees produce better work and are more likely to stay on board for longer. Approaching the culture of a company with intention is also, I think, the missing link in ensuring remote work is actually as accessible as Twitter makes it seem.

“The socio-economic power of remote work is absolutely astounding,” Laurel assures me. 

Distribute currently designed government programs that are leveraging virtual jobs as a socio-economic solution by taking these job opportunities to rural communities. The hope is that this stimulates economic development and creates a tax incentive for States to offer more virtual jobs, and consider even using remote work time zoning as a transportation/mobility solution.

Yet, she’s fully aware that it’s not always fulfilling this potential. 

“Because remote work was incubated in the tech industry (which just happened to be the most compatible and easy to convert industry),” Laurel says. “And tech jobs are primarily in urban areas, right now we’re in very real danger of just fuelling the urban divide even more.” 

US census data, collated by Vivek Nair, showed that cities with higher incomes had larger remote work communities.

“Despite the discourse around remote work empowering the economies of rural, low-income communities in the US, remote work is still a privilege largely enjoyed by affluent areas,” Vivek says.

No matter what you’ve read online — going remote won’t magically change the deeply embedded injustices and inequalities prevalent in our current recruitment processes (or our society at large). 

By removing the need to commute to a single location, of course, the opportunity is there to hire across a variety of cities, countries, demographics and backgrounds. And we know that the remote lifestyle is more accessible to mothers and carers, people with disabilities or illnesses and those who have commitments outside of work. But none of this matters if we simply continue to hire the same kinds of people we always have. Or if we don’t address our internalised biases. 

“The more that we can use and leverage remote work to assist the underrepresented demographics and bring more balance to opportunity and accessibility the better,” Laurel says.

 “But if we just allow this to grow organically it’s only going to fuel the problems that already exist. It’s only with intentional planning and construction and strategy that we can actually make a difference.”

We saw evidence of this playing out in our recent chat with Leah Knobler, the Talent & Culture Lead at Help Scout, a remote customer service messaging platform. 

“Being remote opens the door to possibility, but you need to be intentional to make it happen,” she says. 

Through her role at Help Scout, Leah purposefully changed their recruitment process to specifically seek out underrepresented groups. 

“We realised if women engineers aren’t applying, you’re not going to hire them,” she says.

“[Intentional recruiting is] expanding who we’re looking at and reaching. If we kept doing what we were doing, we weren’t going to attract everybody.” 

A sustainable model is one that allows people to opt out when they want to

In saying all this, I’m aware that even if we eventually get all of these processes right — everyone, individuals and companies alike, have to be able to make the choice that is right for them. 

Do I think that proper policy implementation and intentional strategy can combat remote work issues like loneliness and disconnection? Absolutely. Does that mean everyone has the resources or desire to do so (at least right now) — of course not. 

While Shield GEO is a huge advocate for remote work being an option for employees, we have always been a hybrid and both our co-founders currently work in co-located offices. 

“I definitely could have made [remote work] happen better,” our co-founder Tim Burgess says.

“When I was struggling, I was living in Neutral Bay so actually everything I needed was around me. But I didn’t really have colleagues or enough structure in my workday.”

“Now I have great colleagues and lots of structure in my workday, but I live away from the amenities I like such as a gym and places to eat. But even taking all that into account, I just like working around other people.”

Internally, our remote policy has taken more shape and structure over the years. As we’ve grown, we’ve become more intentional in our implementation of practices to ensure our team continue to thrive. Each time zone has scheduled non-work related video calls and group chats to provide space for that missing ‘watercooler chat’, each member has a monthly one-on-one video call with their manager to connect outside of day-to-day tasks, and while all content is stored online so that everyone can access it, we’re continuously updating and revising training guides and additional resources to make all our processes run smoothly without having to rely on someone who might be sleeping while you’re working. 

Despite all of this, we still have employees who prefer working in our Sydney or London offices alongside other team members, including Tim. 

“I think I genuinely prefer being in a co-working space to being by myself too much,” he says. 

However, he does admit that location plays a big part in this.  

Town planning will play a role in the long-term success of the remote work model

“As much as I love being around the humans in our team, I don’t think I have to be in the office with them necessarily. If there was a great co-working space near my house and there was a good gym and a couple of nice cafés near it… I think I would be pretty happy.”

This goes to show there is more to making remote work a sustainable option than just allowing employees to work from home when they want. 

The way our cities are structured will have to continue to change to support this kind of work model long term. 

“I’d love to work from home a few days a week. Or even work from a local co-working space a few days a week. But those co-working spaces haven’t been able to survive in the suburbs,” Tim says. 

Sarabeth had a similar experience. 

“We had a coworking space for a few months in another city because it was within walking distance of our flat,” she says. “When we moved to Austin, there weren’t any close to home so we haven’t joined any.”  

With more workers choosing to work from home or locations closer to their homes, local business will have the opportunity to thrive outside of the city centre. This is the socio-economic power that Laurel talked about. But it’s a kind of chicken and egg situation right now – one industry will give way to the other, but someone has to make the first move.

There is definitely a sense that things are shifting. We’re moving away from the buzzy, hyperbolic statements that make remote work seem like the only answer. People are still jumping off the trend as we’re coming face to face with the challenges. Still, there are others who are coming up with creative ways to address the challenges instead. There is more embracing of flexible or hybrid models and less of an all or nothing approach.  

We’ve seen this big pendulum swing,” Laurel says.

“[At first] we went all the way over to the other side saying, ‘This is amazing, we have complete freedom!’ [but then we started to realise] ‘oh, this is not going well. We’ve done too much, too fast. We’ve got to step back and think about that.’”

She sees a much more balanced approach starting to take hold.

“Now we’re very much in the pendulum coming back to the middle and asking, ‘what’s the best of both worlds and how do we do this in a way that’s responsible?’”

It’s clear we still have work to do – the model (and community) isn’t perfect. We’re still making sense of it. But it’s evolving as we are and, really, I think that’s a pretty good definition of sustainability.

– Bree Caggiati

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