I've always found the way that different people interact with the concept of trust to be one of the most fascinating things about leadership. Some people will trust implicitly, others will wait until trust has been explicitly earned. Some people can handle multiple breaches of trust, for others a single breach is unforgivable.
And trust is just so valuable. It's arguably one of the most valuable forms of capital.
It's valuable in our personal relationships. It's valuable in our business relationships. And prior to the pandemic, it arguably created the inertia that prevented remote working from becoming the norm.
Remote working is not new. In fact you could just as easily argue the opposite. The corporate office is mostly a post industrial revolution construct, which became commonplace when workers in cottage industries left their homes as the increased efficiency delivered by factories made them uncompetitive.
Remote working is not technologically infeasible. The tools needed to work remotely already exist as a result of the introduction of the internet, the increasing push towards distributed teams, off-shoring of business processes, and existing field workforces.
Remote working is measurably better. It's cheaper for employers, it provides workers with greater flexibility, it keeps people close to the people that they want to spend time with, it allows people to travel and see the world while earning, it reduces the local community impacts of the commute, and it can have lower environmental impacts.
And yet despite all this, it was only really the maverick 'digital nomads' like GitLabs, Automatic, carnextdoor and Envato who had embraced the concept in 2020.
A remote worker is less visible to a manager, which has a couple of interesting impacts. On the one hand the manager needs to implicitly trust that the remote employee is doing the right thing by the company. On the other hand, the remote employee needs to trust that their lack of visibility to the manager and the potential for closer personal relationships being formed with on-site team members won't interfere with them being awarded on merit.
Prior to the pandemic this was a dance, where leaders and team members would gradually negotiate, as trust built in the relationship. A change in leadership could often undo years of work to build working agreements that were flexible and productive. The pandemic was a forcing function - it flipped the conversation: from one of needing to earn trust, to one of needing to maintain trust. And employees in the main have stepped up to that challenge.
As a result remote work has crossed Clayton Christensen's chasm. Early adopters are suddenly seeing competition in their recruitment processes that didn't exist in the past. Early mainstream companies like Amazon, Apple, Atlassian, Spotify, etc have joined the revolution and the late mainstream will quickly follow. Behind that move, industries that service the emerging needs of a remote economy are prospering, for example:
- the recruitment and compliance challenge: payroll, tax and compliance for a multi-jurisdictional workforce;
- the space sharing challenge: maximising the usage of work spaces with spiky occupancy profiles;
- the sustainability challenge: ensuring that organisations are managing their energy and waste footprint beyond the office.
As we constantly need to remind ourselves, remote working in a pandemic isn't remote working. The next frontier is truly 'work from anywhere', enabling people to travel and work, to work from home, to work from the beach, to work from a hub, to work in an office. Now that the trust inertia has been lifted, we are faced with new inertia:
- the pandemic challenge: tighter border restrictions, quarantine periods, etc.
- the technology challenge: the lack of reliable, high speed internet in places where people would love to work;
- the space challenge: the lack of workspaces in places where people would love to work;
- and the ways of working challenge: the need to connect strategy to delivery with a 'work from anywhere' workforce
Solutions are already emerging. Vaccine deployment is reducing pandemic risk and we’re seeing relaxation of border controls and quarantine periods. Starlink is providing roughly 350mb/s in beta wherever you can get a clear view of the sky. Companies like Nooka Space are creating portable, networked spaces. At remote:af we are tackling location agnostic ways of working design.
It feels like we're only a few short years away from the true promise of remote working - the ability to design your work around your life, rather than the other way around.