Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Rise of the Remote Worker

Source: Pixabay (CCO License)

More than 1.7 million paid employees — those not self-employed — worked from home in 2008 at least once a week, up almost 23 per cent from the 1.4 million in 2000, according to the Statistics Canada report on the subject in 2010.

In Canada, Telus found that teleworking increased employee productivity by about 20 per cent after a 2006 pilot project where 170 employees worked at home. Besides increased productivity and morale, it also saved 114 tonnes of greenhouse gases and almost 14,000 hours of time in traffic.

On the south of the border, in US, the stats as per highlight that:
  • Regular work-at-home, among the non-self-employed population, has grown by 103% since 2005.
  • 3.7 million employees (2.8% of the workforce) now work from home at least half the time.
  • The employee population as a whole grew by 1.9% from 2013 to 2014, while employees who telecommuter population grew 5.6%.
Dell and Intel collaborated to produce the Future Workforce Study in 2016 that shows interesting trends about the future of workforce in America. For example, "The traditional workplace doesn’t have the same value for Millennials as for older generations of American workers. Increasingly, Millennials are looking to non-office environments for productivity. 3 in 10 Millennials say they do their best work outside of the office – whether at home, in public or outside."

I am not surprised when I review these stats. I am a full-time, paid employee and I am one of the 1.7 million in Canada that work from home for several days a week. After having worked in a 9-5 office environment for 10 years, I have been working remotely for over 7 years now.  I can't say that I work remotely all the time because I do go out for all my client meetings, corporate planning and other leadership meetings and to conduct stakeholder workshops and other facilitated sessions. But typically, I work from home at least 3 days a week. As someone who has experienced the benefits of working remotely, I can easily say that there are some critical skills and practices required to work remotely that help make it a sustainable and viable option for both the employee and the employer. The other day, at the end of a fabulous #PKMChat, I was reminded of this very fact.

Besides access to good technology including high-speed internet and collaborative tools that enable virtual project teams to work together, working remotely needs a fine mix of skills and work practices. In my experience, here are some of the things that make remote working work for me and my employer:

1) Communication - In the absence of daily face-to-face meetings, I rely on receiving and providing clear, concise and timely communication. Working remotely needs more protocols and processes around communication because I can't get up and walk to a co-worker's desk or a team member and speak to them when I feel the need. Also, there are no non-verbal cues to fall back on so communication requires more sensitivity. Since most communication is via email, phone, skype, etc., it has to be planned ahead and is usually more thoughtful and precise.

2) Trust - I trust my team to do their job as does my company trust me to do mine. Once we have a firm plan, each of us is free to plan our work and we report back as required. I don't like to micro manage and don't appreciate it for myself either. But developing trust takes time. So, I always start with a leap of faith and my default disposition is to trust everyone I work with. This has held me well. When you trust people and show them that you trust them, they do become more responsible and feel more accountable.

3) Discipline - This is a big one and perhaps the area where most new remote workers struggle. When you are working from home, there is no one to give you a task list and no one to police you. All work needs time management but remote work needs it even more especially if you want to make the leap from efficiency to effectiveness. Priorities can change when you are working from home and those are the times you have to figure out what's urgent versus what's important. It is critical to stay organized and continue to do meaningful work and be disciplined about it.

I have a schedule and I start and end work usually at the same time each day. I have built a level of predictability for all my work days for myself and for people I work with. On days, when I take advantage of the flexibility of working from home, I always let my project teams know in advance and add more hours to my work later that day or over the weekend. A big part of my work discipline is also the ability to keep a check on myself and self evaluate. In the absence of immediate feedback, I play the part of a reviewer and a critique of my daily accomplishments. People who work with me know how much I love work plans and tracking planned versus actual :)

Finally, having a dedicated work space with a well-equipped desk and a comfortable chair (not my couch), a big monitor desktop (not my laptop) and easy access to a printer and scanner makes my home office space always ready for work and helps me stay on track.

4) Motivation - I love working independently and creating my own work schedule. I can work with ambiguity and minimum direction and take responsibility for the outcomes. But I also really enjoy collaborating with teams all around the world and feeding off that creative energy. Working remotely needs an extra doze of self motivation and perhaps self inspiration too! Sometimes, working by myself in my home office tires me and I get that dreaded feeling of boredom all over me. Those are the days when I go to my company office (my boss is always open and very welcoming of me dropping by). I also enjoy working from public libraries and co-working spaces to get away from the routine and keep myself motivated. I would add that participating in a daily routine of exercise (I love my daily walks) also helps me stay happy and motivated. I get the opportunity to physically smile and have some polite, early morning conversations with fellow walkers :)

5) Problem-solving - Working remotely as a part of a virtual team calls for good technology skills and an ability to solve problems independently. Things go wrong, as they usually do, and I have myself to rely on. In the absence of an IT department or a colleague I can walk up to, I take on all required roles and solve daily issues. I also help troubleshoot the issues for my virtual team members. If I am unable to solve things on my own, I often pose my problems online into technology discussion forums and twitter especially when it is to do with technology that I am not as familiar with. The community always has a solution I can try! As a remote worker, I have to rely on my critical thinking skills and my resourcefulness to solve any challenges that may come my way.

6) Family - This is a very underrated aspect but clearly something that makes it or breaks it. The support of my family makes a big difference to maintaining my work discipline and a remote working lifestyle. Working from home comes with distractions but I plan as much as I can to avoid these distractions. Sticking to a schedule, keeping my home office away from the living area and keeping the door closed solves most of the distraction issues easily. I also mark my workdays and meetings and other 'no disturb' time blocks in a physical calendar and keep the calendar in an area where my family can view it. My family knows that when I am working, it is strictly work time. So, they stay away from my work space and wait for me to finish work and step out. And I really appreciate and value that respect for my work.

Obviously, it is not all rosy all the time. Just like a 9-5 job, working remotely has its own peeves mostly around not being able to talk face-to-face with other people and engage in deep long conversations or just hang around for a fun chat.

7) The human connect - Because I don't meet people as often, I try harder to participate in online chats, seminars, webinars and discussions to ensure I receive my daily doze of conversations and constructive stimuli to keep my brain going. I am involved with professional organizations that keep me engaged with my area of work and give me opportunities to participate in conferences, training and other face-to-face events. I am also an active volunteer in my community and keep myself involved with an immigrant settlement organization. As a volunteer workplace mentor, I get to meet people from various walks of life and this helps me get my energy back on days when working by myself really gets to me. Because I strive hard to have meaningful conversations, I end up with quality relationships that allow me to add value and in turn provide tremendous value and the much needed human connection.

Remote work is not for everyone. It does take a certain bent of mind and a specific way of working. But anyone can be successful at remote work if they are able to follow good work practices and stay motivated, committed and disciplined.

If you are a remote worker and have been able to successfully work from home, what skills and practices would you add to this list? How do you make remote work work for you?