Embrace a Flexible Future

A few months ago none of us knew how much our lives were about to change. Stay at home orders and lockdowns existed only in dystopian novels but then COVID-19 arrived and disrupted life in almost every way. It's brought upon us a devastating loss of life, economies in tatters and a world that will likely never be quite the same.

To say these are challenging times would be an understatement. I can’t fathom what some people are going through personally and in society there have been so many different lessons and changes to consider. From the decisions (or lack thereof) of our leaders, how our streets and communities changed, how people coped and the impact we saw so quickly on the environment.

It’s overwhelming how much we could learn from this experience, so today I want to focus on one small thing that seems insignificant in comparison but has had a massive impact on many and I believe represents a huge opportunity for society – working remotely.

A Trial by Fire

Working from home (or remotely) is not a new concept, for years it has been embraced by many and derided by plenty more. I’m not going to tell you all the benefits or try to convince you that it works, the time for that conversation is over. The research is done. We have the data, and with very few exceptions remote workers have proven to be more productive, more valuable to the business and lead happier lives. What I do want to convince you is that the time to adopt it is now, no more excuses.

Companies around the world already have some implementation or have discussed trailing it. Where I work is no exception, we have had a few remote people for years and were three weeks into a one day per week team wide trial. But this was different, suddenly the majority of companies had no option, you either let people work remotely or you shut up shop. You can guess what happened.

Suddenly thousands of companies where remote work was previously deemed impossible by upper management found ways for people to be productive outside of the office. To be sure this came with challenges and lost productivity for some, but on average it appears to have worked, and pretty well, which is impressive because this was the worst possible way to trial it.

People were thrust into working remotely full time with little notice or planning. Home offices weren’t ready, people couldn’t even leave the house (except for exercise) and everyone else was home with them, including the kids. Combine that with processing the mental challenges of lockdown and a global pandemic going on around them and it's a miracle anything got done at all.

It really is a testament to just how capable people are of working remotely as well as how trustworthy and loyal most people are to their work. People who point to lost productivity during this time as a reason against more flexible working arrangements need their personal biases examined.

My Personal Experience

Overall, lockdown has been a net improvement to my quality of (work) life. To be clear I had a good head start, I have a wonderful home office setup, great internet and a job that was largely remote ready. This resulted in many benefits for me, but two key ones were:

More Time

Nothing is more precious than our time and the hours many of us have gained by remote working are simply too valuable to ignore. I gained around two hours per work day or 40 hours per month!

This came from a combination of no commute, being able to easily use my lunch break for exercise, not having to get ready for work and using my normal small breaks during the day to get something productive done like cleaning or running an errand.

Improved Productivity

By not being in the office my personal productivity got a boost straight away as I was interrupted far less and I was in a more comfortable work environment. Questions still made their way to me but having that remote barrier meant they were batched up, people would wait until I was available or only the important ones got asked. This has given me larger blocks of time during my day where I could focus on other work.

My team also deserves a huge amount of kudos here. They stepped up to the plate and took the challenges of our all remote setup in stride. They continued to produce great work and supported each other brilliantly.

It's not all sunshine and rainbows though, there are of course downsides and challenges with remote team members. Building personal bonds and comradery requires more effort, creative planning sessions are harder and some people just prefer the office to name a few. But those are challenges we can overcome, and the benefits are worth the pain.

Two Guiding Principles – Remote First & Flexibility

That's why I believe owners, managers and employees should all be fighting for a more flexible future. This is one of those rare occasions where everyone can win – people can improve their quality of life and companies can see improved productivity and retention.

The path forward is different for every company but it boils down to two fundamentals:

  • Modify your processes and adopt tooling so that they are remote friendly. Anything that requires someone to be in person is going to cause frustration for remote workers and it will prevent you from being truly flexible with your hiring, growth and retention.
  • Embrace flexible work weeks. Ask individuals what works for them and support them in that choice. You probably shouldn’t have a roster or a fixed schedule for people because life doesn't work that way. Have someone who wants to work from home three days a week? Great, go for it. Someone else wants to be in the office all the time? Perfect. Another wants to go remote and move far away from the office? No worries.

I know this makes some managers and team leads uncomfortable, but that's on you. You've either hired the wrong people, need to improve processes, or you are relying on a crutch to feel like you can manage your team. Let me be clear; if you think doing your job involves being able to see people at their desk at certain times you are doing your job wrong. Trust and empower your teams and they will return that in spades.

Take the Leap

Opportunities to make fundamental changes to our lives are rare and fleeting. Right now we have an opportunity to keep the positives of this lockdown while removing the downsides. If you are a business owner or manager in a company that can support remote working you have an opportunity to enact real change here, to go back to 'normal' without deep consideration would be a colossal mistake.

If you're an employee encourage your managers to consider changes, and ask them to keep the upsides many have experienced. Be supportive but fight for the changes you want to see, you've proven you deserve the chance.

In a few years I hope we can look back at COVID-19 and acknowledge the damage it caused, but also be thankful for the positive changes that resulted from it, with more flexible work being one of them.