A few days back Scott Edinger put together a very insightful article on the topic of whether remote knowledge workers are more engaged, or not, than people working at the traditional office. The interesting thing though is how the whole concept of teleworking has been all along with us for several decades now, specially, since the emergence of groupware, collaboration and knowledge sharing solutions came about. And it looks like with the opportunity of embracing social networking tools for business that we are enjoying nowadays, there is a new rush in trying to figure out whether social technologies can finally free up knowledge workers from the yoke of the traditional office, resulting, if anything, on what I feel has been one of the main mantras behind both Social Business and the future of work meme: work is no longer a physical space, but a state of mind.
Work happens, indeed, wherever you are, whenever you need, with whatever the tools you have at your disposal, with whoever the connections you may collaborate with in getting the job done. Never before have we been capable of realising that dream of the fully empowered knowledge worker to work virtually in a more than ever distributed world than thanks to the emergence of all of these social networking tools. To the point where, finally, we are starting to see how it’s helping employees become more engaged, more participative, more collaborative, taking on a fair bit of co-ownership and responsibility for their work to levels we haven’t seen in the past just yet. And it makes perfect sense, specially, if you take into consideration how initiatives like BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) have taken the corporate world by storm. However, there may well be perhaps a couple of other additional reasons altogether than those Scott has talked about on that article itself that should probably be added into the mix.
But before we go into that and explore it a bit more in detail, and perhaps as good background for this topic of discussion, on teleworking, that is, we should not forget about the huge amount of literature, in the form of blog posts , articles, studies, research, infographics, white papers, etc. etc. that we have seen over the course of the last few months talking about the various different benefits, the perks, the advantages, the good practices and lessons learned of working remotely thanks to the extensive use of social networking tools. It’s definitely noteworthy to state how it’s perhaps, finally, moving forward in the right direction, raising the right questions: does remote working help you improve your productivity and effectiveness at what you already do? The answer seems to be on the positive side of things. Yes! And I would wholeheartedly have to agree with that assertion, at least, based on my own experience as a remote knowledge (Web) worker from over the last 10 years and counting…
We have seen as well though a few folks talking about some of the various disadvantages; nonetheless, if there is anything clear out of the whole discussion taking place is that working remotely, while remaining productive and effective enough at what you do, still raises questions, concerns and whatever other issues that have certainly kept challenging the relevance of the traditional office as well as the potential place for the virtual workplace of the future we are moving forward to. This time around, nothing to do with technology, apparently, as it’s just an enabler, as usual, but more from the perspective of culture and how in a good number of different environments teleworking not only doesn’t it get promoted nor encouraged, but eventually it gets turned off, to the point of not tolerating it, because both knowledge workers and managers have got that presumption that if you can’t see, or can’t be seen, you can’t be productive, you can’t measure the results. You see? Apparently, we are still very much inclined to measure our productivity by our sheer presence at the office rather than the results and deliverables you produce, in whatever the timeframe, wherever you may well be.
Well, that presumption may well have its days numbered, thanks to the emergence of these social networking tools, because if there is anything out there that they are very good at is at helping generate enough visibility, openness and transparency to continue working out loud, narrating your work. In short, becoming comfortable with observable work (a.k.a. #owork) by which we are seeing a fundamental shift from measuring individual performance by your mere presence at the office cubicle to measuring network / community / team performance based on the results you get to produce in a collaborative and open manner. And this is, indeed, when work is no longer considered a physical place, i.e. the traditional office, but more that state of mind: work happens around you and your networks (physical or virtual) who collaboratively share your knowledge to achieve a common goal. That is, getting the job done.
However, with all of that said, I still think Scott missed a couple of interesting insights that I have seen over the last few years in that transition towards adopting and embracing teleworking. The vast majority of knowledge workers who are still skeptic about it are mainly so, because they haven’t experienced it themselves. They keep saying that they wouldn’t be able to do it; that they need to be in contact with other people face to face, that they lack the discipline to stick to work related stuff, they would instead do the shopping, or the laundry or just keep the kids buzzing around. They just can’t possibly see themselves working remotely, never mind their managers, specially, those who are still living that illusion of command and control or those other managers who thrive on micro-managing their employees. Yet, they keep feeling that way, because, in reality, they haven’t tried it out themselves for a good number of weeks, months. Versus just perhaps a couple of days.
Yes, indeed, you would need plenty of discipline, motivation, encouragement and commitment to make it work. There is no denying that. It’s not easy. Just like commuting to the physical office, one has got to set one’s mind up towards understanding that work is work and the rest is … life. And this is exactly what I think Scott is missing from his article. Two of the main key motivators for which remote workers excel at engagement, participation and collaboration with their fellow colleagues, customers and business partners: flexibility and work / life integration.
Flexibility from the prospective that the traditional 9-5 work schedule is a thing of the past. Long gone are the traditional 8-ish working hours per day (Although we know that every knowledge worker works, sadly, more than 8 hours per day, contrary to what studies have shown as the perfect work week schedule) and instead knowledge workers, through the use of these social networking tools have become more flexible, understanding that depending on the kind of work at hand there would be times when they would be chipping in 14, 15 or 16 hours of work, but then there would be other times when things may be slowing down a bit, and they may just work 2 to 3 hours. And it would be totally fine, because thanks to that flexibility they just focus on the task at hand, versus having to keep working even if the task is completed already. That flexibility is a huge motivator and incentive for remote knowledge workers, because right there they are starting to grasp the notion of how they are in much better control of their workflows, according to their needs & wants and those of their networks. Eventually, working together to finish the job even faster and with perhaps much more quality, thanks to that network effort.
With regards to Work Life Integration, there is very little that I can add, since I have blogged about it recently as well. But I can certainly add one other key aspect related to such integration. Notice how I am no longer talking about work life balance, since I think it’s a myth. It’s always been a myth. It’s never worked. Despite corporations trying really hard for knowledge workers to embrace such balance, in almost all cases there isn’t such a thing: work always wins. Regardless. However, with integration it is different, very different. Because what you introduce into the equation is a new key concept that’s finally making its way into the business world: choice.
In particular, your choice to become a remote worker. In the vast majority of cases, it’s the knowledge workers themselves the ones who request from their managers and their day to day work to become remote workers. They are the ones who have got that initial urge to become remote employees. Some times it doesn’t get granted easily, depending on the nature of your job, whether you have got direct customer exposure, or not, whether your team is all collocated, etc. etc. Whatever the reason. But the vast majority of times it is granted. That’s when flexibility kicks in. That’s when the motivation is huge! That’s when micro-managers become servant leaders helping facilitate interactions and connections, even remotely, in order to facilitate more openness, transparency, trustworthier exchanges, etc. etc. to get work done even more effectively.
And it just works! Why? For something that most people don’t seem to realise just yet. And that’s the fact that those remote knowledge workers are the very first ones who are truly interested in being allowed to continue working remotely in the first place. So they are the first interested party in keeping up that status. For their own good, never mind that one of their teams, networks or communities. They are the first ones who will work really hard on it, because they realise that thanks to that very same flexibility and work life integration they are much more effective and engaged employees than as if they would be working from the physical office.
That’s why whenever someone asks me how I can keep up working throughout my work week from Gran Canaria, you know, paradise island, they are still surprised they can reach me any which way thanks to those various different social networking tools, instead of, say, just being on the beach. Yes, I know, I could well do that, but then again, for how long? How long would you think I would be allowed to keep such status if I weren’t the first interested party in remaining a fully empowered, networked, engaged, motivated knowledge worker?
Even more, do you think I would be allowed to work remotely, where I live, by just making use of corporate email, instead of Living “A World Without eMail“, by making an even heavier use of social networking tools? I probably wouldn’t. And understandably given that lack of openness, visibility and transparency that email provides. That, on its own, is the main reason why I keep walking the talk on becoming an engaged remote knowledge (Web) worker, because thanks to that very same flexibility and work life integration I get to enjoy, every so often, things in life like this …
And that’s not too bad for a professional, remote, networked knowledge worker, don’t you think?