Exploding the myths: Challenging the clichés and assumptions about remote work

One element of our activities at Virtual Not Distant is that of monitoring the public conversation about remote work (flexible work, office-optional work… the changing lexicon is one of the fascinating aspects).  There are many thought leaders in the space producing excellent authoritative content, and we enjoy engaging in this discussion via our Twitter account and elsewhere.

However at this time of year in particular (winter in the UK, when corporations are forced to embrace occasional home-working days when public transport fails due to harsh weather), the quality of content in my feed seems to take a bit of a nosedive - there’s often an influx of articles about “working from home” (which is just one aspect of office-optional working after all).

And in a world where there is still a perception amongst remote workers in hybrid organisations that they are taken less seriously than colleagues who are located in the office - (that they are more likely to be passed over for professional development and career progression opportunities, and also that they are seen as enjoying some kind of soft or easy option), this kind of indifferent journalism can really harm the conversation.  Because it’s not about the articles, it’s about the unconscious assumptions they reinforce - all of which contribute to the collective perception, and hold back transformative change.

Hmmm... homeworking.png

Many of these pieces, frequently in the form of lists and tips, seem to focus on some rather weary clichès and stereotypes… so let’s a look at these in turn:

Working from home = an excuse to be lazy, and/or do other things

Ourselves and others have comprehensively debunked the assumption that adult professionals cannot be trusted to do their work with any degree of commitment or productiveness, without the physical presence of a manager or leader. So why do we still have to confront this? More often than not it’s simply a case of measuring results  which rarely correlate to actual minutes spent sat at a desk or being within a specific building.

I wonder why so many of these lazy “listicles” still seem obsessed with whether those working from home are spending time on social media, watching TV, eating junk food, or doing the laundry...  If they’re getting their work done, and remain accountable and productive, do you really care if they are also managing to sign for the post or let tradespeople in?

These articles also seem to have a slight obsession with what people are wearing to work from home. If full business dress genuinely makes you feel more ‘worky’ and helps you step up to ‘get things done’ mode then seriously, do whatever makes you happy - just don’t assume it’s the same for everybody. For many people, one unexpected advantage of office-optional working is being able to save on having a whole extra wardrobe for workwear, and being able to remain in whatever is comfortable instead. If that happens to be pyjamas, a suit, or a ballgown, then go for it. Surely that’s what flexibility is truly all about?

This time of year I am frequently to be found rocking ‘webcam smart-casual’, which is reasonably businesslike from the waist up, with fluffy slippers firmly out of sight. The only potential impact on my work productiveness is whether I am warm enough.

The having-it-all “Mumpreneur” cliché

I did a quick image library search for ‘home-working mum’ (because male parents don’t appear to get singled out in the same way), and realised that I obviously did this all wrong too throughout the years when my daughters were little. I was apparently supposed to have my preschoolers ON the desk at all times, whilst I made my professional status clear by dint of full make-up and business dress, including most impractical dangly earrings.

At least these maternal paragons get a pass on multitasking, in fact it’s de rigueur - if you’re not whipping up a family meal, breastfeeding triplets and curing cancer simultaneously, you’re not doing it right. All the clichés seem to be about “juggling” continually, which is potentially dangerous around small people and expensive office gear...  No one ever seems aware that childcare is a thing which many working parents depend upon wherever they get things done, even if they have more flexibility in dealing with unexpected changes.

But seriously, to reduce the critical question of work-life balance to this level is to overlook the continual dynamic tension that an increasingly flexible workforce wrestles with daily, without the hard boundaries of leaving a physical workplace.  And too little gets said about the benefits of children of all ages seeing their parents actually working: Being committed, productive and focussed, observing the direct connection between the benefits of an income, with the activity required to generate it.

Finally, the emphasis on parents and mothers in particular is often accompanied with an unspoken assumption that flexible working requires an excuse, and is more acceptable as a concession to those with families or similar commitments. This undermines the argument for flexibility for everyone regardless of circumstances, as well as supporting the ‘soft option’ myth.

The “Digital Nomad”, Surfing the World Wide Waves…

As someone who has chosen to live in a warmer climate than that of my birth, don’t even get me started on this one: the location-independence trope.  We’ve written before about some of the challenges and complexities of working whilst travelling, but sure, a great many people manage lots of moving around, with or without a family in tow.

Once again the realities are very different from the popular imagery.

I love living close to the sea, however I do tend to do most of my work on land, and also indoors. And wherever I am, I seek out something resembling a desk to do it at.  Despite the stock photos, palm trees don’t provide adequate shade for use with the highest definition of screen, which you can’t see very well at all through trendy shades.  And the least realistic images of the lot are those showing people working on the beach… I surely don’t even need to unpick this one, just remember that sand in a laptop probably invalidates any manufacturer’s warranty, suncream makes your keyboard all smeary, and the best thing about beaches is to unplug completely and relax (OK, permission to read a book, or listen to the 21st Century Work Life podcast if you really want to).

The reality is that a convergence of digital enablement, regulation and access to travel is  unlocking some amazing opportunities for the creation of unique lifestyles which fulfill intrinsic motivations at every level. There have always been those amongst us who are at their most productive whilst travelling and exploring, from the wandering journeymen of old, to 21st century digital nomads and third culture kids, who are redefining the scope of what both home and work look like. This cohort may not have been well served by the industrial revolution, but is now enabled to take flight and create a blended work-life balance which truly works for them.

Finally, I am apparently not even supposed to be working like this, being of the wrong generation entirely:

Snowflake Commitment-phobic Millennials

Even who flexibility is for seems to be subject to stereotyping.

If it’s not those harassed “working mums”, it’s precious self-absorbed millennials - unable to handle the commitment of a proper job, and selfishly drifting their way from one unstable gig to the next in the newest trendy co-working, whilst they wail about how the boomers with proper jobs trashed everything from the climate to their career prospects…  Or at least according to a specific stereotype in the cultural discourse.

This is incredibly unhelpful to a generation facing enough challenges in the workplace, many craving stability and a steady pay-cheque in order to establish a credit history and professional identity. Whilst excluding the reality that people of any other life stage may embrace working remotely (part time, self-employed or a portfolio career), as organisations themselves continue to transform into newer more flexible entities.

Please, it’s 2019.

Can we start to intelligently embrace what remote and flexible working really mean, and the potential they offer to both individuals and enterprises?

Because it is about that responsible choice after all: Whether you choose to work from home, or from a co-working space, a coffee shop, or a rented meeting space, perhaps somewhere different every day, as opposed to a central office location. Work is what you do, not where you do it -  (yes we do keep saying that, and I hope it’s going to become a cliché in its own right sometime soon).

The risk with all these stereotypes is that they get in the way of seeing the real potential that remote working has to offer for so many people, and the benefits such flexibility and thinking can bring to all parties. Remote work might not suit every situation, but when it’s implemented  consciously and well, it could revolutionise the way work gets done. As we celebrate what might seem to be the more frivolous aspects of remote, it’s easy to get caught up in perpetuating unhelpful stereotypes, which in the long run can actually damage the impression of alternative ways of working.

The REAL possibilities are far more exciting than any dreary clichés.