Reframing our understanding of remote work

Remote work is not a place but a skill set. Successful companies and employees are learning those skills. Are you?

It's time to retire the stale old narratives about remote work, hybrid work, and flex work.

Is remote work temporary or here to stay? Are remote workers goofing off or more productive? Is hybrid work a compromise between employees who want remote work and managers who do not?

These questions are obsolete.

Remote and hybrid work, in fact, are here to stay.

So the only remaining question (which isn't asked often enough) is: How do we make remote work perform best — for ourselves and our organizations?

The remote and hybrid work trend is the most disruptive change in how businesses work since the introduction of the personal computer and mobile devices.

Then, like now, the conversation was lost in the weeds. Should we allow PCs? Should we allow employees to bring their own devices? Should we issue pagers, feature phones, then smartphones to employees or let them use their own?

In hindsight, it's clear that all these concerns were utterly pointless.

The PC revolution was a tsunami of certainty that would wash away old ways of doing everything. So the only question should have been: How do we ensure these devices are empowering, secure, and usable?

All focus should have been on the massive learning curve by organizations (what's the best way to deploy, update, secure, provision, purchase, and network these devices for maximum benefit)

And by end users (how do I master spreadsheets, web searching, content creation, synchronization between devices, presentations, file sharing, and all the rest).

In other words, while everyone gnashed their teeth over whether to allow devices — or what kind or level of devices to allow — the energy could have been much better spent realizing the entire issue was about skills and knowledge.

It shouldn't have been about whether to use personal computing devices but about how to use them effectively.

The truth is that working remotely is a permanent reality.

It's real for remote workers, hybrid works, after-hours workers, workcationers, business travelers, and others. So it's time to stop debating whether remote work is here to stay and start leveling up to the new reality.

The skills of remote work: Employees

Meetings require various skills around best practices, speaking concisely and constructively, note-taking, presenting information, and persuasion. And those who are good at meetings have learned these skills over time.

Remote meetings come with their own set of skills. And people are already learning them.

In the beginning, remote workers got distracted, "multitasked" during meetings, and generally demonstrated a lack of experience and ability with video calls. However, the ability to stay engaged, participate in decision-making (rather than chit-chatting), and master the many remote meeting tools available reveals a skillful remote "meeter." 

The most significant set of skills for remote work revolves around the psychology and process of working without direct, proximate supervision.

Skillful remote workers establish a process or a system for getting to work, staying focused, managing distractions, and coping with the psychology of toiling away far from supervisors and coworkers.

The skills of remote work: Organizational leadership

Leaders also face a steep learning curve for mastering the skills of remote meetings.

And again, this is an area where improvement is already apparent. Meetings are getting smaller and more frequent, which is the right way to do it.

Far more one-on-one video meetings are happening, most of them unscheduled, according to Andrew Brodsky, assistant professor of management at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

Leaders are also coming around to the benefits of better meeting technology — AI-based tools, webcams, audio, systems, and asynchronous unified communication.

The old, what-difference-does-quality-video-and-audio-make attitude is the mark of an unskilled amateur.

In-person meetings could have been just standing around in the parking lot. But everyone understood long ago that investing in advanced, easy-to-use equipment that streamlines the meeting resulted in high-quality meetings and better outcomes. The same goes for improving the experience of using digital tools generally.

Organizational leadership's most prominent area of skill yet to be mastered involves managing remote workers.

Skillful managers are learning to radically increase the frequency of shorter one-on-one meetings, take whole-person well-being into account, accept the realities of flex schedules and focus on results rather than on the appearance of work through surveillance.

Leaders also need to master skills around discovery, testing, deploying, and using the new world of tools that enable remote work around communication, security, employee management, and others.

It's time to let go of any false belief that remote work will return to pre-pandemic levels.

It's here to stay. And it's attended by the requirement to master a vast array of new skills.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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