By Richard Wilson
I can’t help but feel that the torrent or blogs (and this isn’t one) that are ‘outraged’ by Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban telecommuting are a predictable response from a time stretched twitterati. People hoping that technology assisted flexibility will somehow make their hectic schedules easier. I’m not sure it’s that simple.
Many of us, myself included, take flexible working for granted; be it working on the move or from home. Indeed, speaking for myself, my home office has weirdly become my one bastion of stability, in my ‘real’ office we have hot desking (or put another way – first come, first served), so I never really know where I’ll sit, and the rest of the time I’m out and about meeting people, attending events etc.
James Poniewozik, at Time, wrote a stirring blog about why working from home is essential for the modern dad, most of which I totally agree with, as I try (and mostly fail) to be a modern dad myself. However I can’t help feel that we haven’t yet really got a grip on ‘tele-working’ in a way that works for the employee or the organisation. For so many people I know the blending of work and life is as much a challenge as a blessing; from responding to emails before we go to bed (I did this last night, what a nutter), or quickly checking Twitter when we’re meeting a friend we haven’t seen for ages, just clicking on mail or social media can completely change my mood (it did last night) and that then infects my families wellbeing. For good and bad the flexibility that technology is offering us somehow disturbs the solidity of the present moment we live in. Are we here (like in the room we’re in, with the people we’re with) in reality or are we somewhere else.
There’s emerging research and some pretty compelling evidence that social technologies are fundamentally changing us; how we think, what we remember, who we know. To put it very simply, many of us are better at multi-tasking, finding useful information, not remembering that information and we know (or at least have connections with) more people.
In meetings many of us depend on our connected devices to take notes and access the information we need, but these same devices are constantly tempting us away from that meeting, with photos from friends, the latest news or just simply how we’re gonna get home. Who honestly focuses all the way through all their meetings without a sneaky occasional foray ‘away’ from the meeting? I know I don’t.
Similarly, for all the flexibility that allows us to be in the same house as our loved-ones, to what extent is this ‘availability’ improving our domestic relationships? Does it really help to have everyone under one roof so much? The way we behave at work can often be very different from what’s needed at home and it’s tough to constantly make the switch from caring partner to focussed colleague. I often find myself being unnecessarily decisive about what breakfast cereal to choose, grabbing it off the shelf with exaggerated purpose as if the muesli packet contains some ‘mission critical’ data; whereas I have Skype conferences with colleagues where we realise there’s just five minutes to go and we’ve been ‘shooting the breeze’ discussing the weekend for almost the whole meeting. I exaggerate – but not much. The blurring of life and work is changing the rules of what works. It may well be totally appropriate to spend more time chatting to colleagues about personal stuff as there’s less time at the water cooler, but not at the expense of compromising our projects. Which means we may need longer calls? But then that’s inefficient. Or is it? Maybe we need the longer calls and time to bond remotely for our organisations to still work well. My instinct is we probably do.
Remote working simply doesn’t apply to many jobs; be it nursing, teaching or TV presenting. You gotta be in the hospital, school or studio. Start-ups also seem to work better when everyone is around, and remote working seems to be easier in older organisations with established systems. So there ain’t no one size fits all for organisations or us, the staff. All we can really do is keep checking in on what seems to be working for us, and stay aware of how technology is affecting us as individuals and how we live and work, with intent to making it all come together a little easier.