Discourses survey on conversations about remote work

I was on a nexus analysis course some time back and we needed to write an essay to finish off. Long time no essay and nothing to write home about but here it is: the topic is remote work.

Reflection on remote work

I wanted to reflect on the topic of remote work because it is on top of mind right now as many companies are thinking about what the future of work will look like after the pandemic. The topic is also of personal interest as our company is trying to define what a hybrid approach might look like and I am finding it difficult to engage in continued remote work. In short, the social ties are weaker, the work is more solitary and co-operative* rather than collaborative** and cross-functional.

I wanted to delve deeper into this topic through data and look at how remote work is being talked about in an online professional network. Inspired by Thomas Rydberg, I wanted to specifically find messages about orchestration of collaboration and togetherness, which are harder to cater for in remote settings, and which match my personal interest.

Data collection

The peer network I am referring to is an international, albeit rather Western, invite-only Slack group for design managers. The purpose of this network is to give peer support so a lot of the conversation can be quite opinionated and it typically revolves around different challenges at work or new emerging topics within the practice. Most of the channels are open to all members but there are some private channels mainly for the moderators to coordinate their work.

My data collection was a simple. I included two sources from the environment:

  1. Channel on remote and distributed work
  2. Search queries with the keywords “remote work” and “remote collaboration”

I chose to look only at the conversations which took place during the pandemic (after March 2020) and I was specifically looking at conversations about the practices around organising remote work. I will not report on details as this data is naturally occurring and I did not specifically ask the users’ permission to use it.

The data collection uncovered two interesting things: 1) majority of the conversation about remote work as a practice took place in March-June 2020, just a couple months into the pandemic, and 2) the more recent search results were from job posts where the word remote and its further definitions have become more descriptors of the position itself rather than something that the original poster needs the community’s help with.

The channel was also more active in the beginning of the pandemic rather than recently and in general, there were not a lot of message threads of the practices of remote work compared to other topics.

Themes

The biggest themes in the conversations about remote work as a practice were:

  • How to lead and engage remote teams (including the orchestrations of collaboration and togetherness)
  • Life after COVID — what are the changes required in the processes and practices when the workforce is fully or partially remote
  • The economic repercussions of remote work both for the employer (office buildings) and the employee (e.g. what are the new perks)
  • Sharing experiences and recommendations about remote work and related tools

I focused on the first two more closely as they match the research interest of orchestrating work.

Orchestrating work

Taking a stance on remote work is necessary for any profession that can be done without physical presence. Most of the conversations in the Slack group reflected a concern over what the participants consider as an inevitable change and because it is inevitable, it needs to be managed, which leads to the question of how can it be managed in a way that maintains the success of the company and does not bring about inequality between office and remote workforces when it comes to participation, opportunities and benefits, for example.

Even though the pandemic is not over, the companies need to communicate their stance right now because of hiring: the remote philosophy needs to be mentioned in the job ad for the candidate to determine whether the job is suitable for them. For example, the jobs might be partly remote, remote until the end of a particular time period, or the remoteness might be restricted by time zones. In some job ads, remote work was offered as a perk to the employees, in others it was a skill or an ability that was evaluated in the interviews.

In conversations related to hiring, remote companies were either a threat sucking dry the local candidate pool or a possibility for the local company to hire from a larger pool of global talent. Remote work is also a business opportunity as more and more companies seek to subcontract the bureaucracy related to their newly international workforce.

The companies are perceived to have three basic options: go back to the office (after the pandemic), become remote first, or establish a hybrid setup. Hybrid setup might be easier to choose, but in practice it is perceived as the more complex one largely because both office and fully remote setups come with a promise of equality of interaction order while hybrid changes the inequalities and thus makes them more visible. In hybrid mode, the recommended approach is to have clear rules of how the hybrid works, for example, a company-level agreement on how many days a week people need to be in the office and a team-level agreement on what those days are to make sure that the employees get the best of both modes.

If some of the employees do not have access to the office, specific processes over their inclusion are recommended as alienating the remote workforce is seen as a risk. In practice, this means that remote becomes the norm for orchestration. The group members who have experience working in remote first companies claim these companies are at an advantage as their tools and processes were built with remote on top of mind and this will ultimately make them more successful also for those who are not remote. They also predict it will take a while for the rest of us to manage this change. On a high level this means e.g. ensuring equal perks for remote and in-office employees, and making sure also leadership (or at least a part of it) is remote to limit employees feeling like there is a hub and satellite type of distribution of power.

On the daily interaction level, the group members were concerned over orchestrating collaboration and over the loss of more subtle or organic communication. One member commented on challenges of cross-functional collaboration when remote, which is interesting as the recent trend in product development has been to build self-organised, cross-functional teams. Another noted that their development process had become more waterfall, which refers to a process of creating requirements for others to execute and not a collaborative, agile process of making together to achieve a shared goal.

There was a lengthy thread about concerns over the loss of creativity and “serendipitous influencing”. In terms of proposed solutions, having a “telepresence” is mentioned as an example of a practice which mimics spontaneity but there are also concerns over the fatigue from constant video presence and people debated whether audio only is less draining or just requiring less engagement.

Some of my personal concerns over changes in the interaction order were not mentioned by the community members at all. For example, there was no conversation about the increased dominance of written English or the changes in turn-taking and group conversation when online. This can be due to many of the members being native English speakers, our acceptance of English as the lingua franca of the tech world, or even blind spots when it comes to inequalities on the level of language and media.

A related topic, however, did emerge when a group of members discussed balancing synchronous and asynchronous work. Doing everything synchronously in a meeting can feel tiring and inefficient while asynchronous “document and comment” was perceived as the new, remote way of working already practiced in remote first companies. From the perspective of interaction, “document and comment” emphasises writing skills in ways which may not have been required before. This, however, was not mentioned in the member conversations but reluctance to move to async “document and comment” style was seen more as a change resistance (attributed to age).

Orchestrating togetherness

In general, orchestrating togetherness without physical presence was perceived as difficult. A member describes how the socialisation is left implicit in the office, taking place between the gaps, but also creating those gaps. In a completely remote setting, these naturally occurring conversations need to be created explicitly which results in people’s calendars being filled with meetings and adding to the fatigue rather than creating gaps.

To help each other out in orchestrating togetherness, the members list social online rituals such as happy hour or pub quiz but many fully remote companies seem to also have regular physical meet-ups.

Remote onboarding of new employees was mentioned as a concern: not as much from the perspective of the new employee getting the information as from that of building their network and ties to their colleagues. My personal experience reflects this as it took me considerably longer to feel connected to my company (in both senses of the word) than with my previous experiences of onboarding in a face-to-face setting.

Online socialisation seems to have its limitations, but overall, the members who are pro working from home believe everything, even serendipity and spontaneity, can be achieved in digital, it will just be different.

Finally

While the members present many alternatives of what might be the best split of physical presence and remote, and how to split the teams, tasks etc based on people’s preferences, there is an acknowledgement that at least in the world of product development, no competitive employer can afford to not have a remote policy of some sort. There is an acceptance that one size fits all solution is not possible as people’s life situations are different and that employers need to manage this.

Additionally, the employees need to take a stance for themselves: what suits your circumstance and preferred ways of working the best. And finally, it is difficult to say how much the pandemic has influenced and continues to influence our experience of remote work, which is why it will be interesting to look at this again one year from now and see if and how things have changed.

*Individuals contribute with smaller parts of the whole, i.e, divide tasks. (Rydberg, Davidsen, Hodgson 2018)

**Collaborative work is when participants identify “a need for deepened discussion and establishment of common focus on the direction of the project” and “a need to form social relations amongst group members”. (Rydberg, Davidsen, Hodgson 2018)

Grumpy, old woman