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Remote First: Let’s Hit The Home Run
These are great reasons to go “fully remote, forever”. We tend to focus on these reasons because they are easy to understand and can be measured.
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As the COVID-19 vaccination drive gathers momentum we will see how long-lasting the impact of the pandemic has been. The billion-dollar question that will be answered is: Did the pandemic make our embrace of digital so tight that we will continue ordering groceries on Amazon Fresh, dinner on Swiggy, be sucked in by Call My Agent! on Netflix every evening and take online nanodegree programs on Udacity late into the night? You can debate that, but one thing is certain: The Work from Home (WFH)/ Work from Anywhere (WFX) trend, triggered by COVID-19 lockdowns, will continue. In fact, I am willing to wager a bet that we will have a growing number of organizations that are proud to be “Work from Home First” and “Remote First” – much like the “mobile first” trend some years ago and now the “cloud first” wave.
We can be reasonably certain that some of the manic growth of digital will calm down in the months to come. The pent-up demand for real-world shopping, entertainment, sport, travel and social interactions will create a dip in digital demand.
Netflix which added 26 million new subscribers in the first two quarters of 2020 (in 2019 it had 28 million subscribers) will not continue along that steep growth curve. In the US, health and fitness apps saw 405 million downloads, up 22% from 332 million in 2019. But people will return to gyms and to yoga studios once it is safer, lowering app usage. Practo, that helps people assess health issues, finds doctors and books tests using a mobile app, found there was a 500% increase in online doctor consultations between March and May 2020. A staggering 80% were people experiencing telemedicine for the first time. But be honest, will you not feel better with a physical examination by a doctor than a virtual one?
However, when we move the argument to WFH/ WFX, it is different. Everyone has a reason to continue:
- A distributed, remote workforce provides businesses with access to a larger pool of talent because hiring is not fettered by location and proximity. Organizations can choose to improve their diversity quotient or employ more differently abled persons who find it comfortable to work from their own environments. They can access niche talent. It can lower the cost of real estate and of travel expenses.
- Employees win because it ends the pain of commuting. It provides them more me-time, family-time and hobby-time. They can move up from the struggle of work-life balance (which is easy in theory but extremely difficult in practice) to work-life integration. And yes, they get to do Zoom meetings in pajamas.
- The government wins because it lowers pollution with fewer people commuting. It takes away the pressure of providing civic amenities in crowded downtown areas. It can go slower on big ticket items like mass urban transport.
These are great reasons to go “fully remote, forever”. We tend to focus on these reasons because they are easy to understand and can be measured. They are also powerful enough to make it worthwhile to address the “disadvantages” of WFH -- like the discipline required to make WFH a success, dodgy Wi-Fi, data security, conflict management and employee retention. But the truth is that people want flexibility; they crave freedom; they want to break away so that they can get closer to the lives they dream of living. WFH can make it happen.
This is not to say that remote working is for every organization and for everyone. Besides, the idea has a long way to go. Remote working calls for not just the right tools and infrastructure, but also the right processes and oversight. At the moment, these don’t exist satisfactorily, making WFH ripe for further technological innovation.
Considerable progress has already been made in WFH, enough to supplant the term “telecommuting”.
We have come a long way since the idea of telecommuting was created in 1973 by Jack Nilles, director of Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Southern California, in the wake of the OPEC oil crisis. Nilles did the math: A Los Angeles-based insurance company had more than 2,000 employees who travelled on average 34.4 km a day at a cost of US$2.73 million (1974 prices). He said that telecommuting was the alternative. Two years later, telecommuting began when the first personal computers became available. With the oil embargo in 1979, IBM moved five of its employees to fully remote. By 1987, about 1.5 million people in the US were telecommuting. In 2009, IBM had 386,000 employees telecommuting, resulting in saving the company 78 million square feet in real estate and about $100 million annually.
In 2016 all of it changed. IBM CEO Jeff Smith asked, “Is it possible for a company the size of IBM to have the innovation and pace of the best small tech companies, of the best small teams, but have the scale of IBM?” The needs of Agile, for small teams to be in the same location, killed the poster boy of telecommuting. The highly successful IBM experiment that lasted 37 years was shelved. But, by November 2020, IBM was back in the game. It was busy telling customers “how to succeed in the new normal…by devising a strategy that embraces the remote workforce as a critical component for creating long-term opportunity and growth”. It even conducted a survey that found 54% of adults want to work remotely after the pandemic. In other words, the oil shock delivered by the OPEC in the 70s gave rise to telecommuting which has evolved into WFH with support from the right technology in the form of high-speed broadband, smart phones, better applications, automation and collaboration tools. In other words, technology didn’t let the oil crisis go to waste!
As an aside, more good stuff has come from the oil crisis. The Netherlands responded to the oil embargo by building bicycle lanes and space-efficient public transport, leading to healthier populations, lower risk of accidents, a cleaner environment and a shrinking dependency on oil. #EndOfDigression
Let’s get back…to the future. Let’s take the case of GitLab which develops software for software development lifecycle that is used by an estimated 30 million users. GitLab has a community of 3,000 contributors across 65+ countries. Remote work is hardwired into the company DNA with its team handbook running into 10,400 pages, describing the foundational values of GitLab.
GitLab is not alone. There are scores of organizations that are “Work from Home First” and “Remote First”. We have much to learn from them. Adam Schwartz, the founder and CEO of Articulate, a company that makes an app for online training used by 93 of the Fortune 100, puts it well, “Despite the vast distances physically separating us, we dove into the project together, running up ridiculous phone bills and sending tons of emails back and forth every day. To my delight, we quickly made progress. In fact, being apart actually focused us ruthlessly on what was important: solving our customers' pain with the simplest, user-friendly product possible. We were efficiency personified.”[x] The company found itself on Inc. magazine’s annual list of the Best Workplaces for 2020.[xi] Articulate had abandoned the myth that bean bags, free gourmet food and cool art on the campus are talent magnets. They had hit the home run on the idea of being 100% human centric by being 100% remote.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.