When I moved to Tasmania over a decade ago, I believed I was heading to the promised land where I could breathe in the sweet coastal/mountain air, revel in the natural beauty and cultural delights while I built my global career remote working in between jetting off to urban hotspots when required. Technology was giving us freedom from desks and buildings, and the promise of lifestyle and economic contribution was being waved as the future.
Having worked in the Commonwealth public sector, I had seen the myth and the reality of presenteeism and I knew that attendance didn't equal output. I'd sat behind a senior staffer and watched the hours pass by as he only broke with his endless game of digital solitaire to day trade and get coffee. I had watched a manager have his staff taken away so he would quit, only to see him call the Departmental bluff and sit in his office watching movies until a redundancy round was offered 12 months later. I'd seen another staff member sit at his desk and read through several thick volumes of fantasy novels in protest for being passed over for a promotion. Oh yes, remote or teleworking as it was known then was being heralded as a way of shifting to an output based world, where peer scrutiny and interdependence would regulate and motivate staff rather than top down authority.
Anyhoo, none of that utopian dream shiz happened. I quickly discovered bosses didn't even consider teleworking in the main, and trying to work out how to communicate, assign workflow and sign the going away cards was just all to hard. I stayed behind a variety of desks for a few years. And then suddenly, it started to coalese. Especially in Tasmania, where there just aren't enough specialist peeps, or your market is off island and so therefore are some of your workforce - working with folk elsewhere started to happen. Real estate prices also happened in Sydney. Melbourne and San Francisco, and agile company CEO's were looking across the water to the same things that had lured me here. Having big name startups like BaseCamp founder's book Remote: Office Not Required spell out the many benefits of remote workers, empowered other people to try it for their business, and let their staff to choose a lifestyle that made them more not less productive while at the same time releasing a lot of expensive overheads. Technology got even smarter and products like Slack and Yammer meant that we could chitter chatter with our peers and not miss a minute of 'who took my sandwich' and 'can someone please empty the bins' while tracking the granular aspects of our project progress and milestones. And then after that decade of working for big gov, big education, and myself in small boutique consultancy, I finally started working remotely for a global edtech startup based in Sydney. And it totally doesn't suck.
So what does living the dream look like and how does it work? For businesses wanting to try it on, and staff wanting to make the pitch to their bosses, here are the things that I think make it work, and what has to be nurtured to ensure it does.
Some folks dig remote working, because they have certain aptitudes that make it their thang. For me, I love working on my own, not because i'm a monster or hate people, but because I like long tracts of uninterrupted time where I can intellectually sprint and not smash into an impromptu meeting or get drawn into a compelling conversation that fuels my FOMO. From years of side hustles, study and then my own business, I am a multitasking machine, disciplined and deadline driven. I don't need a lot of direction in my work and I know when to say I don't know what i'm doing and ask for help. This is a good set of qualities to have when it comes to knuckling down, making decisions, avoiding disaster and producing results. I'm a peoplenotpeople person, when they're there I thrive, when not, still thriving.
Remote workers need to be performance managed closely. As much so they can articulate how they are going and what is needed, as to get feedback on their performance. People need the chance to talk about where and how they are going, and be open and honest, and if performance management is done regularly and well, those talks build up a profile where if cracks or issues arise, they are easy to spot, and easier to talk about when a dialogue is already in place. If things aren't working for either party, then not discussing them or acknowledging them won't make them go away. As with my example of public sector staff who were frozen out or ignored as a management strategy, this simply made them more defiant and oppositional. Neither of those peeps in the examples were bad people, they were just unhappy and badly managed, and it brought out the worst in them and wasted a lot of money and time. Don't allow remote workers to be out of sight and out of mind, there still needs to be structure and management. Most workers who want to work remotely are super glad and grateful for the opportunity and understand how it improves their quality of live. I certainly see it as a priviledge not a right, and that I have to put in a bit more to make it work.
You need to be able to work happily and safely if you remote work in an environment conductive to it. Both my partner and I work remotely for city based tech startups, so we have a solid network set up (at our expense) so video conferences don't drop out and lots of devices can run at once without stressing the network. Our internet speed is adequate, with very slow fibre to the node NBN and some boosting. This was the most critical thing to get right, and again, we invested in that network to get it faster. We BYOT so we have the tech tools we like, and upgrade when we need to. Connectivity is an inescapable reality of remote working, so you need to make sure that you have a sturdy reliable internet connection. Space is important too, and getting a spot to do your work that is comfortable, with air and light also makes work a place you want to go. Don't scrimp on your infrastructure. I have a standup/sitdown desk, an ergonomic chair set up and all of that stuff that means that my WHS is the same as if I was in an office. Our skeletons matter and you need to ensure that you aren't putting yourself or your productivity at risk.
Living on the peri urban fringe of Hobart means I can be in the rural charm of a country town, and at an airport in 50 mins, or in the city co-working in 30mins if I need my fix of tech startup playmates. It's remote remoteness meets big city lights and it strikes a perfect balance . I also work in our Sydney HQ once a fortnight, which means that I keep abreast of the people and don't feel remote to our brand and can contribute to the culture. That's a pretty high frequency of travel, but as a startup sprinting into a massive global market, it is what needs to happen right now, and suits me perfectly. My partner travels maybe once a month/six weeks to manage a large infrastructure build project, and is much more remote based, different strokes for different projects at different times.
3. Projects + Comms
Remote working lives and dies by communication. Especially in the early days when everyone is adjusting to you not 'being there' making sure that you are included and remembered in critical conversations is important to get everyone out of the habit of working with what they can see. Using different channels for different comms helps: we have Slack for chatter, for teams based comms, for broadcast info and for one on one discussion. Email is for more formal comms and for actionable items, Google docs is for all our collaborations and FaceTime and Skype for meetings. We have a marketing standup meeting with FaceTime every morning to touch base, and the phone is used when a conversation that isn't text based is needed.
For me, instinct drives a lot of how and when I communicate. Sometimes you just need to pick up the phone, or in a world of Slack in the office, get up from your hotdesk and talk face to face. Initial meetings I like to do in person if possible or with video, just to get a shared sense of who we are, which makes shorthand in email and messaging less likely to go awry with careless misinterpretation of tone. Lots of comms helps to ensure that everyone knows what they are doing - and why and when it is needed. The halcyon dream of teams policing their own members by obvious weak links of output does work, and this democratic form of working together for the greater good is a motivating force.
You don't need a boss breathing down your neck when your neck is supporting a whole lot of other body parts and them you, the symbiosis works (where perhaps the analogy doesn't ha ha). Responsible autonomous workers know what they have to do and when and what their role is. Empowered with knowledge and skills, they can choose when to have a surf, or a nap, or take the dog for a walk or do yoga, and when to knuckle down and get the job done. This gives you three 8 hour days to choose from in every 4 hour day when planning your time, and often the day can be chunked up to mean you are constantly motivated and fresh on the page. With output based endeavours, there is no early or late start, there is just when the work has to be done, around daily meeting committments etc. This works super well when your customers are in different time zones. and especially, we are never too far away from a real time conversation.
4. The Reality
Remote working suits me perfectly, and I love it. And yes, there are a lot of trackies and ugg boots involved in my work wardrobe. If I lived in Sydney i'd still work a couple of days a week out of the office, as a change of scenery and quiet focus is integral to how I like to work. I get up early and start early, can meander around when I want, can work into the night if the mood takes me or on a weekend if I want to do something non work during the week. I don't watch the clock as I work to get tasks done, and often that is to make space for more speculative planning and strategy for the organisation and future opportunities once i've cleared my desk. This lifestyle means I can hang with my partner, pets and family and give them quality time. I'm integrated and also give the best to my work as I am in a creative and supportive space for me. I don't have to worry over the office being too hot or cold, or any of the things that can be a drag to manage for a group of individual needs. When I am in the office, its a treat and I really appreciate the company of my peers, it is like meeting up with a group of super smart buddies, and I take that warm feeling away with me for our offline comms. My environmental footprint is smaller, I spend less money on food and coffee, (and outfits, see comment re trackies) and I make time for yoga and meditation which in turn make me work better. I can throw in a load of washing, make granola, soak lentils and other goddess activities while i'm working which means time 'off' work isn't full of domestic shiz and an overwhelming misery.
Sure, remote working isn't for all people or all industries, but there are a massive amount that it is for that don't even have it on their radar. If you want to give it a go, give your boss and your organisation a strong reason as to why and how it will work for the organisation and its bottom line as well as your own needs. Trial it for a day a week for a quarter and review. More traditional industries move slowly, and even agile ones can take a while to get the value proposition. Most bosses I talk to have as their main concern the capacity to not be able to have the person 'on demand', so you need to understand what are the concerns of your workplace hierarchy and co-workers and make sure you hear and address them. If you can, give your staff a choice and see if they want to go remote, make it easy for them and make sure that the tech and channels are available and that you are part of a leadership culture of flexibility. Remote working is also one of the ways that equity and diversity especially for women can be enshrined, and by making work flexible men have more ops to go and do many of those 'school pick up' style tasks that hold women out of the workforce and senior roles for longer.
When the workforce is flexible, remote, half and half, whatever suits, you give people the capacity for creativity and expression, for integration of their lives and their jobs, and not creating the artificial lines that we have a work life and a non work life. There is no work life balance there is only life, and it is short and precious and much better when every part of it flows with harmony and happiness.
Dr Polly McGee is an author, entrepreneur educator, digital strategist and urban yogi. Her writing and teaching is informed by a life of diverse experience: she has worked in kitchens, bars and restaurants from frantic to fancy, managed multimillion dollar innovation grants programs, worked with hundreds of start-ups to refine their business ideas and source funding.
A trusted communicator on digital strategy and small business, Polly has contributed to a range of business and digital publications for private enterprise and Government clients including Start-up Smart, presented ABC Northern Tasmania’s Drive Program, and created a suite of digital, audio and video content. As co-founder of Start-up Tasmania, she was voted one of the most influential people in Australian Start-ups. Polly is currently the Strategic Marketing Lead for global edtech company Prosper Education, and President of social enterprise Produce to the People. Her first novel, Dogs of India came out in 2015. Her second book The Good Hustle will be in bookshops and online Feb 2018