In this blog post, Pilar suggests that introducing remote work in organisations can actually help to reduce inequality in some sectors of society.
You’ve probably come across the statements that remote work gives us more flexibility, that it reduces the commute to work, that it gives us a better work-life balance (though this one can be turned on its head too, when we consider “work-life interference”).
These are all great arguments for those of us who believe that in the knowledge sector there is no longer an absolute need to travel into an office space every day.
But we can go a step further.
Technology can Help Us Choose Who We Spend Time With
Chris Slemp was incredibly generous with his time, energy and thoughts during a recording for the 21st Century Work Life podcast (you can listen below or download episode 123). He described how he works with organisations to help them create positive communication ecosystems and environments. We also covered other common topics in this podcast: how social enterprise networks can improve productivity and why his company abandoned the bricks and mortar office.
For me, the highlight of the conversation was when, in Chris’ words, he “stepped onto the soap box” to share why he sees remote work as an opportunity to change the structure of society.
Chris spoke about how the fact that, as he no longer commutes to work, he can spend more time with his family and with his local community.
“It’s only been in the last 150 – 200 years that we have started ‘travelling to work’, away from our local communities. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of things and I hope it’s just a glitch.”
He’s right. Having to travel long distances to our workplace can leave some people disconnected from the community they want to belong to. If there is a way of balancing the time they spend at work (wherever that might be) with the time they spend amongst those they want to be with, let’s find that way. If technology is what allows us to do this, then technology is actually bringing us closer together and not disconnecting us from each other, as the headlines would make us believe.
This argument does not neglect the fact that some people will find their communities at work and will prefer to spend time with their colleagues rather than with their neighbours. The important concept here is “choice”.
I stand completely behind Chris’ arguments, though my reasons for banging on about the “flexible working” drum (which often involves choosing where you work from) are slightly different.
Enabling employees to choose how and where they work from can have an effect beyond those individuals and their families. In Japan, for example, some public agencies promote the use of technology-enabled work to enable certain sectors of society to remain part of the workforce.
Telecommuting, including working from home, is “promoted mainly as a tool to combat the erosion of the labour force. Declining birth rates, paired with an ageing population and low employment rates among women, have led to a decline in labour force participation over the last two decades.” (1)
I live in London, where house prices keep rising, and rising, and rising and rising. This means that in order to live near your work to avoid spending a long time on a packed train every day, you need to be earning a very decent wage. (Not to mention the pain of seeing a high proportion of your salary eaten up by public transport.)
If you’re not prepared to either move near those hubs where the most attractive work takes place or if you just can’t bear spending time on your commute, then the types of work you can choose from become limited. As a result, the chances of feeling fulfilled at work and the general sense of wellbeing that accompanies it become less and less.
As property prices rise disproportionately to salaries, more and more people and families who can’t afford to live in a city hub endure a long and uncomfortable journey into work. This can further increase the sense of inequality between those who can enjoy a healthy work life because they can afford to live near their office and those who can’t.
(Note: I am aware that a long commute does not always result in frustration. Some people enjoy the drive to work; others are able to catch up with work on the train. I’m advocating for choice; where there is choice, inequality loses its effect.)
There is already enough inequality in the world which is incredibly difficult to tackle. In the Western world, this inequality is having ramifications in society that we hadn’t foreseen. And there is more to come.
Our Little Grain of Salt
There is one thing that those of us in the privileged positions of designing how other people work can do to reduce fragmentation in society: Give technology-enabled work (remote work) a chance.
Before we dismiss an “office optional” approach, let’s analyse the problems that physical distance can surface; let’s plan accordingly and monitor how we get on.
Before we nod our heads in agreement with headlines claiming that collocation will always result in better collaboration, let’s think about what collaboration means for our team and what mindset, tools and processes can support it.
Finally, as more people adopt a flexible approach, let’s evaluate whether this is really a case of ‘either-or’. In most cases, the solution will not lie in whether we see each other in the office every day or whether we never share a physical space at all. The answer will most likely be somewhere in between.
(1) Eurofound and the International Labour Office (2017), Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, and the International Labour Office, Geneva.