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Opinion: We've adapted to remote working in a crisis - where do we go from here?

Rowena Hennigan is an expert in remote working. She says emergency remote working in the pandemic is not the way to approach remote working long term.

Rowena Hennigan

IN APRIL 2017, I swapped the Corrib river for the Ebro, moving from Galway to Zaragoza in Spain with my family. My partner and I are both remote workers, our daughter has chronic asthma so a move to a dryer climate was a better choice for her health. 

We started our new life in Zaragoza, finding a better work-life balance. I founded my RoRemote consultancy and began offering my services virtually to international clients. Having both worked remotely for some time, the transition to a new country was easier for us, as we had more autonomy during the transition.

My training and teachings are based on the belief that “effective and sustainable remote working is a discipline that needs to be learned and constantly improved on”. My professional ethos is #workisnotaplace.

A new approach to working

The workplace has evolved in recent years and has had to completely transform in the past few months. A huge percentage of the Irish workforce has shifted from office-based work to remote, much of it done within 24 hours back in March.

The reality is that had the Covid-19 shutdown happened 10 years ago, this level of remote working would not have been possible. The technology available and the mindset of the modern workplace and workforce has shifted, I would argue for good.

A recent study by Amárach Research showed that almost nine in ten people felt it would be better for the environment if they continued to work from home after the shutdown.

However, when it comes to remote working, there is much more to consider than the right technology. Usually, a change of mindset and approach is required for employers and their staff to master the remote working discipline. Technology is simply an enabler, nothing more.

Often, too much emphasis is put on the technology and tools provided to help in remote working, missing the other skills needed by remote workers to become effective in the practice. That includes the development of specific communication skills needed for this type of work.

I discovered this in 2007 when I first encountered remote working, whilst based at a multinational in Galway. I joined a global team who met on audio calls using Microsoft Communicator to keep in contact. I would often work days from home, taking away the need to commute and sating my appetite for work flexibility in my career.

It changed my outlook totally. Any computer connected to the internet can enable communications that can facilitate your work, flexibly. For me, the approach supports self-management, self-responsibility and in the main facilitates my work productivity. 

Back then, I was in the minority, not many were working that way or even believed it could be done. But the trailblazers and early remote adopters were already carving out the way for the followers, driving the changes with their own operations. 

Change happening fast

Many of the technology providers enabling the development of remote working tools are 100% remote themselves in their operations. One such company is Doist, which develops enterprise instant messaging applications. Their design and development of tools for the area has underpinned remote working growth and the documentation of best practice.

Governments were beginning to look at the potential for remote working even before Covid-19. Little did I know that when I contributed as a subject matter expert to the Future Work Now report by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation in December 2019, that in such a short space of time a full public consultation in Ireland would be underway. This has now expanded in its approach, thinking and reach, as a result of the experience of the pandemic. 

It is agreed that more guidance is needed to support the uptake and implementation of remote work; including health and safety, equality, employment rights, the right to disconnect, training, data protection and much more. Make sure you have your say on remote working in the public consultation document here, before August 7.

Emergency remote work is not established remote work 

Don’t be fooled by the recent months of accelerated remote work adoption – it has not established remote work in any way that is in line with best practice. It has been and still is a forced change, with no time to transition and prepare for many employers or workers.

Companies transitioning their operations to remote (or flexible) working, take months of intentional planning, training and implementation efforts. 

They introduce HR policies, initiatives, training and supports to encourage and supplement the adoption of the new way of working, planning in time for the transition to happen. 

According to US entrepreneur, Matt Mullenweg, this year’s change has been the remote work experiment no one asked for. He has a point. For those who have transitioned over the past few months, there is so much to learn from the more established companies that have already been doing it over the years. 

Like many others, the experience I had during the pandemic and full lockdown for three months in Spain turned all my remote work experience, knowledge and practice on its head completely.

Despite my extensive experience of remote working, being confined in lockdown to an apartment with a small child, another remote worker and a whole lot of external environmental pressure and restrictions was not like anything I had experienced before.

I had to put into practice all of my knowledge on a micro-level, stopping every few hours to review my work, my productivity and purpose in my work tasks; re-planning, re-prioritising and re-scheduling.

In particular, I prioritised my self-care with regular breaks, downtime (turning off all notifications on all devices) and gentle exercise. Sitting on my terrace to get some light and air became a pre-work ritual for me during those intense and stressful months between March and June 2020. 

Also, working voluntarily to support the HSE in Ireland with their Covid-19 response was a motivator and helped to keep my focus on meaningful work during the long days of confinement. It turned out to be a very rewarding experience. Working with a team at TU Dublin, we created what is believed to be one of the biggest remote work eLearning projects in the world involving over 2,200 students and supported the HSE workers sent home to work during the pandemic response.

No more commute

There are so many positive personal reasons to work where and when we may choose. Research has shown that remote workers display high potential trait indicators – psychologists have mapped out six traits that illustrate these high achievers.

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They include conscientiousness, curiosity and an ability to adjust, so the positives for companies are well documented. I believe many of these traits can be learned, nurtured and fostered. For me, the most important aspect of remote working is its sustainability in relation to your professional and personal lifestyle.

Looking at the broader picture, there is the consideration of sustainability from a wider environmental perspective – for example, the reduced carbon emissions from lack of commuting – and all of the other associated benefits related to decreased consumption. This environmental consideration and the decreased carbon emissions footprint is one of my personal priorities when it comes to remote working.

The reality is that the switch to remote for many in the past few months has come as a shock, to employers and their staff, but remote working is here to stay. In fact, I would argue that is it the future. We may not have expected to have to embrace it under this much pressure, but we have an opportunity now to build this new way of working in a sustainable way.

Think about it – I get to decide where I work, choosing a café, coworking, library, kitchen table or wherever there is a reliable internet connection and depending on what needs to be done and the time available I have to get it done. That’s not a bad way to live.

For further support for the transition for employers and workers, check out Ibec resources and the Grow Remote community. 

Rowena Hennigan is founder of RoRemote. She is a Remote Work Lecturer, Educator and Evangelist.

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Rowena Hennigan

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