The Technology Problems Lurking Behind the Remote Work Revolution

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard for millions of people around the world, but it’s also presented entrepreneurs and innovators with an opportunity for transformation—a chance to rethink how we work and interact with others. Millions of businesses that never would have otherwise considered operating remotely switched to a remote work model as a precaution to keep their employees safe (and/or comply with local lockdown orders), and countless employees have discovered that working from home is not just luxurious—it’s also more productive.

And to be sure, there are many benefits to working from home, both for employees and employers. Employees get to skip the rush-hour traffic and lengthy commutes, they get to spend more time with their families, they have more control over their workspaces, and in many cases, they have more flexible hours. Employers get to save on costs, minimize employee turnover, and benefit from increased productivity organization-wide. These benefits are so powerful that many organizations are considering switching to working from home full-time.

All of this is made possible thanks to modern technology; we have reliable, fast internet connections, amazing devices and software capable of advanced functions like streaming video and managing stable audio, and thousands of platforms that can help us stay organized. The unfortunate thing is, working from home isn’t universally more productive or beneficial—and it’s this very technology that’s responsible for the downsides.

The Lurking Threat

There’s a clear threat to the remote work culture that’s been developing for the past several months, and it stems from several interrelated problems with the technology we’re using to manage it. This threat is dangerous because it’s lurking surreptitiously; it’s not obvious on the surface, but it’s slowly chipping away at our ability to work and interact with each other in an effective way.

Let’s examine some of these core problems, how they’re affecting our remote work environment, and how we could overcome them to build a better future for ourselves.

Poorly Optimized Substitutions

One of the biggest problems here is what we’ll call “poorly optimized substitutions.” In the physical work environment, we’re used to doing work in a specific way, but this isn’t always possible or productive in a digital work environment. For example, let’s say you held a team meeting every morning for 30 minutes, wherein you’d all touch base, set an agenda for the day, and split off to different workstations.

In a remote environment, you don’t naturally run into each other, nor do you have a physical meeting room. Many businesses respond to this by providing a substitute: in this case, a 30-minute video call. The problem is, this video call won’t work as well as the in-person meeting; you’ll be dealing with inferior video and audio, less consistent participation, interruptions, and other issues. In the end, this forces you to spend more time, get less done, and keep up routines and rituals that you probably didn’t need in the first place. Instead of reinventing work for a digital environment, too many employers are simply substituting inferior options for what they had before, and it’s wrecking productivity.

The Barrage of Notifications

Working from home is possible in part because of the sheer number of communication platforms available to organizations. Employees can stay in touch with each other using project management platforms, instant message platforms, emails, chat rooms, video calls, and regular phone calls. It’s great, because each medium has its own pros and cons, and you can call upon different mediums for different situations and needs.

However, this also comes with a major drawback: notifications. The average employee is now using dozens of different platforms, and their leaders and coworkers are accustomed to getting near-instant responses when they send a message or post an update. As a result, the average employee is getting a constant stream of notifications, and it’s almost impossible to keep up with. Each notification serves as a distraction, pulling them away from the work that maters most, and adds stress to an already-stressful environment.

Hours, Pay, and Incentives

Working from home can also introduce an incentive problem. In a traditional, physical work environment, there’s already an issue with how some people are compensated. They’re required to stay in a physical space from 9 to 5, and they’re paid a salary that assumes they’re working 40 hours a week. But what happens when you’re working from home and you’re done with work 3 hours early? Should you draw things out to fill out your time? You won’t make any more money by getting done faster and asking for more work to do, so why not do the bare minimum and continue collecting your fixed salary?

The flexible nature of remote work, combined with fewer meetings and less direct supervision, is creating a recipe for employee exploitation. Few people are incentivized to do the best possible job; instead, they’re incentivized to kill time and do the bare minimum.

Isolation and Loneliness

It’s also important to note the possibility of damaging long-term effects from isolation and loneliness. Many employees start working from home with optimism and excitement; they hate getting interrupted by small talk with coworkers, and can’t wait to have some peace and quiet in which to do their work. But several months into the remote work environment, it’s a different story—the loneliness starts getting to you, and you start missing even the most annoying human interactions you used to have in a physical work environment.

This problem tends to be an insidious one, rarely noticed until it’s already manifested. If organizations continue working from home, it could turn into a near-universal problem for workers in the months and years to come.

The Solutions

So what are the solutions to these problems? Obviously, each issue has its own impact and its own potential range of solutions, but these approaches stand to help the situation in many different ways:

  • Entrepreneurship. If you’re currently unsatisfied with the experience you have with your current employer, you could leave and try to start your own company. It’s easier than ever, now that remote work is becoming the norm; not only will you save a ton of money by not leasing an office, you’ll also have access to potential employees from all over the world. In fact, it seems likely that we’ll see an explosion in entrepreneurship and innovation in the years to come because of this.
  • Ground-up reworks. Many of these problems stem from organizations trying to translate everything they did in a physical environment to a remote environment. Remote environments cannot accommodate this translation perfectly. Instead of this approach, it’s important for organizations to consider and execute full, ground-up reworks of how they do business. In other words, don’t transfer your work from physical to digital; rebuild your work structures for the digital environment.
  • Employee independence and autonomy. Organizations can also benefit from giving their employees more independence and autonomy. At the end of the day, your employees are the ones doing the productive work for your company; if you’ve recruited and hired the right people, you should trust them to get the job done. Give them more freedom to do work the ways they want to do it, and they’ll end up doing a more efficient job.
  • Diverse options. Everyone suffers from the problems associated with work-from-home tech in different ways, and has different preferences for working. Accordingly, the best approach is to create a diversity of different options for employees, both within a single organization and while including a number of different organizations.

Technology has given us an important opportunity to transform the way we work, which is especially important while dealing with the circulation of a highly infectious disease. However, the introduction of these new technologies (and our reliance on them) has also introduced new problems for us to deal with. We need to be acutely aware that our approaches to remote work are imperfect, and at times counterproductive, if we want to move forward in the best possible way.

Nate Nead

Nate Nead

Nate Nead is the CEO & Managing Member of Nead, LLC, a consulting company that provides strategic advisory services across multiple disciplines including finance, marketing and software development. For over a decade Nate had provided strategic guidance on M&A, capital procurement, technology and marketing solutions for some of the most well-known online brands. He and his team advise Fortune 500 and SMB clients alike. The team is based in Seattle, Washington; El Paso, Texas and West Palm Beach, Florida.

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