The Pixel-Based Employee: In Praise of Remote Working

This is how most of my press releases get written.  Image by Shutterstock
I work from home, but not because I wanted to stay home with the kids. At the time of the arrangement, I had just moved to Maine, this position opened up, and my employers were willing to give the idea of my staying in Maine and working remotely a shot, and it worked out. I’ve been very glad and grateful for it.

While I know there are a lot of benefits to in-person interaction with one’s coworkers, and that there really is something useful about being able to pop by someone’s desk to check in on something or air an idea, I do think there is something very freeing about remote work that binding oneself to an office environment can stifle.

Mandy Brown, who writes the wonderful A Working Library blog, has a great piece on making the best out of remote-working teams, scenarios in which most or all members of a working group are in disparate locations. “Our communication is no less real for its delivery via pixels rather than sound waves,” she says, and I agree. She writes:

Remote working encourages habits of communication and collaboration that can make a team objectively better: redundant communication and a naturally occurring record of conversation enable team members to better understand each other and work productively towards common ends. At the same time, an emphasis on written communication enforces clear thinking, while geography and disparate time zones foster space for that thinking to happen. In that way, remote teams are more than just a more humane way of working: they are simply a better way to work.

I recommend the whole thing, but a central bit of advice she gives really rings true to me, the bit in the above quote about redundant communication. Because so much of remote work is done over email and other written platforms, it’s understandable to think that anything said in those media are now set in stone, as it were, now enshrined as part of the Official Record, and now generally understood. But as anyone who deals with a lot of email knows, these messages can come through in such volume, often with so much content and insufficient context , and often with tons of gobbledygook embedded in endless email threads, that it’s rather easy for important things to be missed. Decisions might have been made, ideas finalized, plans made, and yet not everyone will be up to speed because the data was lost in the back-and-forth. Better to be repetetive than to lose time and effort to easy misses.

While at my job there is a central main office, there are also branch offices and other folks in different parts of the world, so we are in large part a “remote team,” even if unofficially, meaning that we have to contend with this kind of thing organizationally anyway. As Brown says in her piece, it makes sense for everyone in organizations and teams to get into the headspace and practices of remote working regardless of whether they themselves come into the office every day:

It’s easy … for the remote team members to end up as second-class citizens, always a step behind their in-office counterparts. Many remote workers I spoke to voiced anxiety about being neglected, simply because their colleagues naturally prioritized the needs of the people they could see face-to-face each day. It’s necessary for everyone on a team to adapt to remote work, even those who continue to commute to a traditional office each day.

I don’t feel this kind of neglect, other than missing out on what I metioned before, the unavoidable fact that there are benefits to being in the same space as other folks, learning more about them personally from day by day experience with each other, which leads to a particular kind of understanding and chemistry. But as an introvert, working remotely removes many of the stresses I might feel from constant human proximity and the social pressures that stem from that. For me, it’s been a great arrangement, and I think I perform better as a result.

Bolstering my good feelings about remote working is a piece at Quartz by Anna Codrea‑Rado on the opposite of remote working: open-plan offices. And it turns out, while kind of faddish in recent years, they’re not all that great for, well, work:

Writing in the Journal of Environment and Behavior, Aoife Brennan, Jasdeep Chugh and Theresa Kline found that such workers reported more stress, less satisfaction with their environment and less productivity. Brennan et al went back to survey the participants six months after the move and found not only that they were still unhappy with their new office, but that their team relations had broken down even further.

Other research she cites notes the problem of distractions from conversations and phones and other sounds stunting productivity. Additional research shows that workers in open-plan situations were taking more sick days – and quite possibly because, well, it was easier to get sick!

And again, this is an introvert’s nightmare, having to do productive, thoughtful work while always feeling the press of impending social stress.

Now, when I worked in media research at the 2008 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, we were in an open-plan situation (“plan” used loosely), but we were all so unbelievably consumed and busy, that we were largely de facto cubicled. There just wasn’t time to look up or over at your coworkers for much. But even then, it added to the stress for me. Which is saying something.

I know there is a middle ground here, an office environment in which people’s personal space is respected, and a good in-person rapport is free to develop (assuming such a rapport between two given individuals is possible). I sometimes see office environments I admire and think about how it might be a cool thing to work in a setup like that. But I wouldn’t want to trade the freedom and, yes, increased productivity that remote working provides me. I usually wear pants, too. Just to make it feel more like work.

But I’d never do remote working with the kids at home all day. Not at their current ages, anyway. I can’t parent rowdy and needy toddlers and at the same time work to save secularism. For now, my kids have a great daycare that really enriches them, and builds them up socially.

They commute.

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