How to facilitate remote work better
My objective is to write down my perspective and how to I got started working remotely and what I learnt along the way. Then I want to compare that to the experiences from when people were effectively forced to do it.
First I must say that my experience does not include working in a company that has nearly infinite funds. Companies I’ve worked at had perks but did not provide two meals a day, two monitors per person, an on-site gym, etc. These companies make their workplaces as comfortable as possible.
How I made the switch
Initially, I just wanted to try working remotely. I asked for 50% remote, where I’d be in the office till noon. Since the company didn’t have prior experience with remote work that was a good starting point for everyone.
Eventually, as we got better at it, I made the switch to full-time remote. After that I’d be at the office about once every two weeks.
A lot of people now had to make a sudden switch. I can definitely see how that was not ideal. Especially if neither the employee nor the company has had prior experience.
I think of working remotely as compensation
Working remotely should be more seriously considered as part of the compensation package, both from the employer and employees perspectives.
If you are asked to work remotely, you should be compensated for that. If you are asked to stop working remotely you should be compensated for that.
Similarly, if you ask to work remotely, you should consider that an increment (raise). Similarly, if you ask to stop working remotely that too is an increment.
In fact, I had two job offers where remote work was not only on the table but was advertised. When it came time to sign, there was no mention of it. When I asked about it, I was given vague answers about how it could be arranged after an indeterminate trial period. Since that’s a material change to the agreed up terms I wanted to be proportionally compensated for that change. In one case, the company was shocked that I dare make such a demand.
It’s just a matter of your perspective and what it is that you value.
I consider working remotely very valuable for two reasons: money and time affluence.
My perspective is that you are effectively a business of one. You’re selling your time. Your company is paying you for that time. It’s your responsibility to make a profit after you’ve taken care of all the costs. Just like your employer.
If you work remotely, there are many ways that you can reduce your costs in order to increase your revenue.
First of all, you don’t have any of the transportation costs. They are easy enough to estimate.
Secondly, you are “spending” less time because you don’t commute. Even though the company doesn’t pay you for this time, this is still a cost to you.
A simple way to estimate how much your time is worth is to compare your
monthly salary / 176 hours versus
monthly salary / 176 hours + 22 * the number of hours in commute (assuming an average of 22 work days at 8 hours per day). With a daily commute of one hour, you’re effectively earning 9% less then if didn’t have that commute.
The opposite is also true. If you’re working from the office and you are able to negotiate remote work, even for a day or two a week and you save a few hours in commute time, that’s the equivalent of having gotten raise.
Depending on your situation, however, you might value a non-working hour more or less than the salary-based estimate. For instance, if you’re in a tight spot financially you’d value the gross earnings more. Conversely, if you’re working on a side project that you hope will become your full-time job, or have hobbies that you’re very dedicated to, you might value an hour free much more than the loss in salary.
As a result, if you’re ever required to stop working remotely you can directly calculate how much “less” you’d be earning.
Another aspect is where you live. In order to optimize your commute you’ve likely taken into account the location of your office when picking where to live. Often this means a higher cost or less space, and often both.
If you are working remotely you can live somewhere cheaper, bigger and better. You can also have take your preference on where you’d actually like to live more.
If you’re asked to stop working remotely, it’s very similar to being asked to relocate. Relocating often entitles you an allowance of some sort.
The second very important aspect of working remotely for me is time affluence.
It has two aspects. Firstly, that I have more time. And I can do whatever I want with it.
Secondly, it means I can arrange my time as I see fit.
For instance, if you were unable to go somewhere after work because it’s far and you’d not make it, by working remotely, you can simply go there earlier and work from a coffeeshop, library, coworking space, etc. nearby.
If you are asked to stop working remotely you might also want to take into account the fact that you’re losing your time affluence.
Issues with being forced to work remotely
Covid lockdowns have sped up the adoption of remote work. At the same time they’ve shown the importance of being prepared for it.
Not being prepared comes with several issues. These issues were then further exacerbated by the lockdowns.
Above, I outlined how it could be considered compensation. If you choose to do it, you are (or at least should be) prepared to bear the costs and reap the benefits.
On the other hand, those same points can be costs if you aren’t prepared. Those costs include space, furniture and utilities.
If any of those are scarce you should be compensated appropriately for them.
That is, if you apartment is small, or you haven’t got appropriate working furniture, or would require an upgrade to your internet connection the company should provide a relocation or furniture stipend or internet allowance.
If you’re made to do it, your costs should be subsidized.
There were quite a few articles such as Remote work: Employers are taking over our living spaces and passing on costs .
It’s a great perspective that shows the down-side of working remotely when it hadn’t been taken into account previously.
In this case I think it could have prudent to move and for employers to subsidize the cost of the move.
This was probably not considered very seriously neither by the companies nor employees. Most plans for remote work were made on the fly and expected to be temporary. With a little foresight it could have been anticipated that this situation would largely be unstable and last longer then a couple of months. That would have made moving justifiable.
After I started working remotely full-time I did move. I found a better, bigger, cheaper place that made working remotely even better for me.
This makes me think that it might be a good idea to offer relocation assistance for people who’re switching to remote work.
It may even by a good idea to offer some kind of rent subsidy for living in an area more suitable for remote work such as villages.
The pandemic has made the situation worse because it’s forced entire families to work remotely simultaneously with no preparation.
Furthermore, because the schools are out due to the pandemic, working remotely with children in the house has been very difficult for quite a lot of people.
I cannot comment on this in detail, obviously, but I do understand how it would have been less than ideal to say the least.
This is largely a consequence of the pandemic to a significant degree.
I don’t think this would have been an issue in a more normal time simply because everyone would have been better prepared for it.
Another argument put forward was that their company provided catered food. This is indeed a great perk that’s valued by a lot of people.
But only a minority of companies have catered healthy meals.
People either eat out or bring their own lunches. In Malaysia it’s almost exclusively the former.
For most people this is a direct additional cost. Besides, it also has a significant impact on health. Eating at home, when you’re prepared that it’s what you’ll do, is healthier and more economical.
It’s a big change
I’ve been working remotely for about 5 years and eased into it.
But having to switch overnight is definitely a big change.
One of the biggest issues is that you might not know when to stop. I faced that too. But when I realized how unhappy it made me I made a conscious effort to stop.
I set an alarm at 6pm to remind me to stop, for instance.
The most difficult part, however, was not feeling guilty when someone contacted me after hours and I didn’t reply. After a while I managed to get over that as well.
It was practice, that’s all. It got easier.
There were two things that I think I did right.
First, I told a few people who would contact me after hours frequently that I wouldn’t reply after office hours. They’re free to contact me and I’d get back to them first thing the next day. And I always did. I also told them not to call unless shit is on fire. When they did call if things were on fire I’d fix them immediately, but if they weren’t I’d repeat to not call me and told them I’d handle it tomorrow.
Second was to make a dedicated work area. In the beginning I was in a small shared apartment and the desk was next to my bed. After I’d moved to a bigger place I had a spot in the living room made up as my “office”. I’d not use that space for anything else. It was just the corner where the desk and the chair were but I’d not sit at the desk or use that chair other than while at work. Conversely, I’d only work there and never in the bedroom.
It was also immensely helpful that I worked with and for decent people the entire time.
I’d guess it took about a six months for this to be normal. After a while it turned into a habit so I don’t have to be so strict any more.
The inability to bounce ideas off of your colleagues has also emerged as another issue for lots of people. I agree with this to some degree but have a counter-point as well.
Firstly, yes, it is often good to have everyone at the same place at the same time. In person meetings tend to be more productive then online ones. It seems it’s easier for people to focus. In online meetings people can get distracted by notifications etc.
It’s also quicker since you don’t have to wait for others to receive your email or IM and then reply.
With that said though, I find that remote discussions, while slower, often result in higher quality discussion and ideas. There is immense value in writing. Everyone can take their time to think through an issue more thoroughly rather than being put on the spot.
As a compromise, while working remotely nearly full time, I’ve often had periodic in person meetings.
It’s also important to note that this is very dependant on the stage at which you find yourself. Collaborating and impromptu discussions are much more valuable when the project is in early stages and the path is still not clear. Once there is a clear plan on what needs to be done, I find that writing is more effective.
I understand that this is a big issue now.
A lot of our social life is often tied to our work. Our friends are often our colleagues. I was lucky with this in two ways.
Firstly, not only did I have friends outside of work but I also lived near them.
Secondly, I had strong shared interests with my colleagues. Sports in particular. That made it worth while to make an effort to meet them outside of work. Plans to play a sport tended to be easier to make and more specific then just plans to “hang out”.
If you’re made to work remotely, I can see how this can be a big issue. I think connecting around a specific activity might be a good idea.
But this issue was made even more prominent because of the lockdowns. It combined not meeting your coworkers with not being able to meet anyone.
It is difficult to make friends outside of work, though, definitely.
In order to facilitate remote work, and counteract loneliness, it might be a good idea for companies encourage their employees to live nearby each other and properly support that.
Benefits for the company
The benefits for the company are obvious. Take just rent and utilities. Companies must pay for both at corporate rates that are higher then individual rates so significant savings could be had there.
An extreme example of this is the report that Google is saving $1 billion per year as a result of employees working from home .
Doing remote work ethically, by properly supporting employees, however, would reduce those savings somewhat. The saved money can be used to improve the living conditions of employees.
This might result in less cash being saved, but would improve the employees standard of living significantly.
At my consultancy job, we eventually closed the office altogether and did our meetings in nice coffeeshops and coworking spaces. That was a nice treat occassionally. The COO simply took the filing cabinets and put them in their home office. At the end of the day, we still saved money.
- Working remotely isn’t for everyone
- Working remotely, or not, is compensation, depending on the preference
- It’s not only about money but the quality of life as well
- Changes in working remotely should be properly compensated for
- It takes a bit of practice and it’s good to ease into it
- Companies need to financially support changes they mandate
- There are several things that can be done in the next step towards a distributed workforce
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