There has been a lot of talk over the last week of how COVID-19 might be the pivotal moment for remote working to really take off. China, Silicon Valley, Japan and even Italy are all adopting remote working at various degrees to limit the spreading of the virus. There is such excitement around remote work that brands like Zoom have seen their stock value climb up.
While I really hope people are right and we will see remote working remain relevant once the threat is removed, I cannot help but be skeptical because we have been here before.
Teleworking has been a perennial technology story for well over a generation. I’ve written about the idea since the late 1980s. One of the first posts on this site was Will bosses accept telecommuting?
Telework in 2000
In the run-up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 I was working for The Australian Financial Review.
In Avoid the rush and take up teleworking I wrote about Sydney’s plan to keep workers from commenting into the city during the games. From memory there was a lot of extra traffic at the time, in part because businesses took precautions.
ORTA, the Olympic Roads and Transport Authority, is promoting teleworking as a strategy to help companies beat anticipated transport problems. Teleworking happens when people carry out work at a location other than their normal office, but remain linked to the office. The connection might be as simple as a phone or a fax, but increasingly it involves remote computers linking to an office network.
In practice, Sydney companies using teleworking as a temporary measure during the Olympics will continue functioning more or less as normal. In many cases their customer and suppliers will not notice much difference.
This was such a long time ago that businesses still took fax machines seriously.
Better networks, better tools
With fast fibre networks, mobile phones, cellular networks, better software tools and better portable hardware, teleworking is so much easier today. Millions of people do it. It’s been part of my working life for 30 years. Yet it is still not as widespread as you might expect.
In the linked story Carolina Milanesi rightly says the technology is ready. Yet much of the time business culture isn’t prepared for remote working. She mentions trust as an issue.
Remote working needs trust
Trust isn’t a problem for consultants and other professionals who are paid for their output. It is an issue for command and control style managers. Those dinosaurs will need to give up some of their control as COVID-19 spreads.
The sad thing is that even if companies switch to remote working to get through a pandemic, or epidemic, there’s a good chance they’ll change back later. For years IBM encouraged employees to remote work, only to have second thoughts and drag everyone back to the office.
Another issue mentioned in the linked post is that remote employees can feel isolated. That needs to be managed. Bosses won’t be able to do much during enforced periods of teleworking in a pandemic or other crisis. At other times there need to be strategies to make sure people feel part of a team.
Telework was a technology story when I wrote about it in 2000. It isn’t any more, today it’s a management story. Management need to think more in terms of employee output and less about time serving.