Working remote

3 minute read

I’ve been working entirely from home (and sometimes the cottage) for about three years now, and part-time from home for a while before that. I’m thankful that my employer was able to offer me this option, both for commuting and family health reasons, but it was definitely an unusual exception at the time.

More and more in the past few years it’s becoming an expectation that employers will offer remote options, particularly in tech jobs but starting to extend into any area where it’s not logistically a problem. For tech jobs being able to offer a remote option is becoming a differentiating factor for employers, both in hiring and retaining staff, and I expect over time this will extend more to other traditional ‘office’ jobs. A lot of call center jobs are now done from home, as an example.

Improved and cheaper collaboration tools are definitely facilitating this move.

It’s no longer required that a company setup dedicated video conferencing equipment in a meeting room in order to have a decent video meeting – and realistically even those dedicated setups frequently didn’t work properly and didn’t scale above a few locations. Now you can use Zoom or something similar and people can call in to the same conference using computers with video, or phones for just audio, just by clicking a web link. I have video or ‘phone’ calls using one of these services at least once per day, for everything from 15min client status calls, to 1x1 meetings and group hangouts with my team, to vendor calls.

The rise of easily usable and feature-rich group text chat tools has also helped remote teams collaborate. Text chat has emerged from the early IRC tech ghetto, struggled through the unruly adolescence of instant messaging clients (RIP AIM and MSN Messenger), and matured into services that appeal to both techie and corporate users – led by Slack. Being able to search chat history and allow ad hoc single channel guests is great, not to mention app integrations.

Usable documentation collaboration is another pillar of remote work. Wikis have been around for ages, but it’s finally getting easy enough to use and maintain content with them that they can replace emailing around MS Word documents with ever more confusing version names (Excel still hasn’t been effectively beaten though). The best services offer collaborative editing, so you can see what others are typing and add / revise in real time while on a call. And when you have to keep those Word or Excel or whatever files, a file storage/sharing service that’s searchable and properly organized is important, and there are several to choose from.

Email… well, dealing with email effectively is more a matter of having a good personal process, in my opinion, than trying to get a killer app for it. (but someone feel free to write a killer email app that solves all the problems…) I’ll write more about how I deal with email in another post.

Better tools are great, but more important than having them available is having a workforce willing to embrace and use them. Growing numbers of digital natives continue to come into the workforce and quickly gain seniority. They not only expect that technologies like those above will be available and used, they also understand that in an online-enabled work landscape a person’s location may be less important than what they produce, because that’s been their lived experience. Existing corporate management styles and entrenched processes need to adjust to this new reality or risk losing out.

And where does this leave industries that require skilled people in a bricks-and-mortar store or warehouse or factory or build site? How do they manage the expectations of these digital native workers? I don’t know. Certainly some similar tools can be used in those environments to ease the business side, and robots can be added to assist, but at the end of the day you need an electrician to hook up power in a new building.

I occasionally need to remind myself that people I’m working with might have been in primary school when the dot-com bubble burst, have always had a smart phone as an adult, had Google to search for answers since they were toddlers. They’re not all old farts like me. 👴💨