Going The Distance: Why Remote Working Is The Key To A Flexible Future
As the world moves online, there's an opportunity for leaders to reshape the working landscape as we know it.
There are few things in life that can make the world stop and take a collective pause. I can recall only a handful of incidents during my lifetime, like the horror of 9/11, or the fear that accompanied the financial crash of 2008. But the coronavirus pandemic- this is something very new and different. The outbreak, and our subsequent handling of it, will fundamentally change our working lives as we know it.
Mass quarantines, closures, and cancellations are forcing our hand, challenging the working world to adapt, and adapt fast. At times such as this, it's helpful to remember that we're all in this together. All facing the unknown. All uncertain of what will come next. Remote working on this scale will undoubtedly be a challenge, but there is no longer a choice for compliance- it's essential we get to grips with this sooner rather than later.
For most, the idea of remote working is just that- an idea, never put into practice. Some businesses will have already adopted flexible working as standard, in line with changing lifestyles and a more switched-on world. In the US alone, there was a 159% increase in people working remotely from between 2005-2017, with more sectors opting into this kind of culture. Still, there will be companies now struggling to pivot, having lagged behind in adapting their strategies in the past, or belong to a sector that is primarily front-facing, such as those in the food or fitness industries.
For the latter, there will be a different set of obstacles instead of archaic management structures to face, yet, we've already seen examples of businesses getting creative when working at a distance. Personal trainers have filmed online sessions and webinars, whilst food hubs are creating do-it-yourself (DIY) kits or offering free delivery, so everyone can still enjoy the experience at home. Prior to lockdown, this may not have been a core part of their business model, yet, their active response is likely to be well remembered by their consumers once this crisis is over.
Still, one thing is certain- it won't be an easy transition, but with every challenge lies an opportunity, and as the majority of offices move online, we have a chance to implement effective remote work protocols that go beyond a knee-jerk response to the outbreak, and instead lays the foundation for a more digitally-minded future. Ultimately, it's up to us all to create a framework that brings remote working to the forefront, not as a last resort or even as an alternative option, but perhaps even as the primary way to work moving forward.
If that sounds too bold or daring, consider the circumstances that have led us here, and what we all now face on a global scale- things have to change. Whilst the future of work has long been a topic up for exploration (a welcome keynote at each World Economic Forum Summit), few could have predicted how this pandemic would light a fire under the discussion. The fourth industrial age is here, and with it, the tools and technology we need to move the conversation forward, putting safeguards in place so that if we were ever to face anything like this again, we'd be better prepared as a nation.
Even entrepreneurs and SMEs, who are arguably more agile than the big corporates, have an opportunity here to better hone how they work. They are also best placed to guide others on making the shift to remote working more successful, especially as the lines between work and home will continue to blur into normality, at least for the foreseeable future. In my company, Infographic.ly, we adopted a partial remote working culture from inception, opting to become 100% fully remote/flexible a few years ago, so for companies like us, our operations have remained intact, albeit with a reduced output as a result of the current economic climate.
What's clear to me is that there are always lessons to be learnt in times of distress. It's when we as the human race rally and adapt as we have done throughout history. As the dust begins to settle over the coming weeks, we'll see efficiencies start to come under the microscope, with businesses realizing that for the most part, "office life" can still continue in a virtual setting. We've all seen that meme on social media about meetings that could have been emails, and beyond the humor here, there's truth to these words. We should take this time to really review our working structure, and identify ways in which we can all be leaner in our operations. Arguably, without everyday distractions, this is when we can be at our most creative, free from the general monotony of life!
Even before the coronavirus forced this change, the working landscape was already becoming more dynamic and fluid; the 9-5 office life no longer considered the most effective way to measure productivity. Over the years, we've been fortunate to work with some great global clients (BCG US, for one) and our communication has always been managed remotely. We've never met face-to-face, and yet we operate as an extension of their office through online chat or email. It's an effective and efficient way to work that allows companies to extend their reach, without having to have a physical presence in each market they are active in.
This same principle extends to the workforce too. A survey done by Buffer in 2019 reported that 99% of employees questioned would like to work off-site for at least one point in their career. In our case, 60% of our employment network is based in Lebanon, and in times such as these, we're able to double down on supporting talent in the region and create new opportunities, because we already have this culture established. We're seeing this thinking become more of the norm for new mothers too, who often struggle with the work/life balance when they start a family. Two of our designers have found that remote working has afforded them the best of both worlds, with everyday life just running concurrently in the background. And, if I'm honest, a cute toddler entering the chat frame now and again is only going to improve your mood.
At the end of the day, no-one will come out of this unscathed or unchanged. There's a serious humanitarian issue at the heart of this pandemic, and we all need to be aware of how to flatten the curve by minimizing our contact with others. The economic ramifications are already happening as this situation unfolds, but I believe on the whole, we will come out of this stronger and more resilient than ever before. "Business as usual" no longer applies in today's climate, so we need to find a new, more relatable way to operate and grow our companies; an opportunity that remote working can afford us, but only if we go all in. Don't think of this as a stopgap solution, think of it as the next evolution of the working world.
2020 is already going to be remembered as the time when humanity went into lockdown, but I think it should stand for something else, something much stronger; the year that we turned the working world on its head and emerged in better shape than ever. Who's with me?