Why Remote Work Won't Last Post-Coronavirus

Let me start off by saying I’m a major advocate for remote work. I’ve been a remote worker for the last decade and it’s absolutely changed my life.

I’m 100% for companies giving remote work a try, especially if they don’t usually allow it, during the outbreak of the coronavirus. It will help people stay safer, and, at some level, keep the economy healthier than if companies simply closed down.

I just don’t expect many companies to stay majorly remote or there to be any major swing toward distributed work because of the current world situation.

But Justin, my company has all the tools we need to work remotely! We use Slack, email, store all our files in the cloud, and even have VPNs to use when we’re on the road. We’re set for remote work! This is the chance to see a major change!

That’s true, but successful remote work doesn’t rest on tooling; it results from culture.

Culture for organizations are the behaviors, attitudes, core values, expectations, and practices modeled and/or enforced by the organization’s leadership. Culture is in essence an atmosphere created by how people think and act.

Coronavirus is not going to change a company’s culture toward remote work. Sure, policy might change, but to have a truly effective remote work culture, lots more has to change than policy.

For example, how many times does a manager drop by your department or desk during a day to “see how things are going?”

Do you ever feel the need to hide the YouTube video you’re watching when someone walks by?

Do you get pulled into meetings by just being at your desk?

Have coworkers been passed up on promotions because they’re “not in the office enough?”

This is culture at work.

Bryan Miles discusses this at length in his book Virtual Culture. He equates cubicles in the office as “playpens for adults.” It’s a staunch opinion, but what he’s knocking on is the culture of fear and control often associated with working in an office at a “traditional” company.

He states,

Cubicles allow managers to keep a close eye on their employees because they keep employees rounded up in one central area that is easy to oversee. This feature is particularly important to some leaders who believe, “If I can’t see my employees, I can’t control them.” They fear this might lead to lower productivity if leaders were to give up centralized office space. (Page 82)

The root of the culture war in organizations that will make remote work successful or not is trust. Are you willing to trust your employees to be productive when you can’t see them?

Giving trust is difficult when you’re not used to it. Giving trust is difficult when you’ve been burned before. Giving trust is difficult when you’re used to being in control.

Enabling remote work in policy only will not change a company that’s not willing to trust employees to provide results without direct oversight.

The nightmare scenario for me is to see a number of companies move to remote work in policy only, try to apply the same culture of control to the workplace by surveillance technologies, and effectively create a controlling environment an order of magnitude worse than working in an office.

The most likely reality is companies will go back to normal operations after seeing remote work as a necessity to survive for a short period.

I hate to be so pessimistic, but organizational culture has to change alongside policy for remote work to truly be successful long-term.

What I do hope is organizations will start to consider what it means to be fully distributed – meaning not just having remote workers, but constructing policies, practices, process, and culture to empower employees to be effective, healthy, and productive while being trusted to work remotely.

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