A Brief History of Remote Work and Why It Matters

A Brief History of Remote Work and Why It Matters

“Telecommuting” has been around since the 1970s but only recently have we begun to see it enter the mainstream.

Then in early 2020, the trend spiked with the novel coronavirus reaching a global pandemic status. This public health hazard has forced many firms to test company wide work-from-home policies for the first time ever (though, for over a decade there has been a small—but growing— segment of technology companies that have adopted fully distributed organizations from day one*).

Regardless of the why we can tell you from experience that after a company begins letting employees work from home they often see a “remote bleed” — or more simply put, the 2020 spike in remote work will likely expedite the global shift to remote knowledge work.

What + Who

That leads us to the question of what type of work can be done out of the office and who thrives in that type of environment?

The simple answer is that most knowledge work (definition: emphasis on "non-routine" problem solving that requires a combination of convergent and divergent thinking) can be done with access to a computer, some software or collaboration tools and decent internet connectivity. That being said, not all personalities thrive in this type of working environment, but most can “survive” in it for periods of time.

People that tend to thrive are self-starters, dislike micromanagement and crave autonomy and trust to do their best work. Personality-wise we often see introverts and ambiverts do exceptionally well in work from home settings, but extroverts can also succeed with proper balancing of socialization in other aspects of their life. Staying focused and being productive takes discipline, and discipline doesn’t develop overnight.

Basically, if it can be done on a computer, it can be done remotely. It may be harder, especially for teams who are used to whiteboard sessions and brainstorming walks—but it’s doable.

When

The question of when work is done really depends on your business and the type of work. You’ll read the word asynchronous often, but in reality, if you’re in customer support functions there will most likely be a set schedule.

  • Strict schedule: e.g. 9 to 5pm EST
  • Loose schedule: e.g. overlap of 4 hours between working day on GMT +8
  • Asynchronous: work whenever, just get it in before it’s due.

Whatever you choose, especially if your team is testing out remote work, it’s important that you communicate this clearly so there is no confusion. If you’re on a set schedule then, when 5pm hits—people should turn off their machines. If not you’ll see rampant burnout and anxiety from constantly checking communication channels at all hours (we'll talk more about this in the section on Work-Life Balance).

Where

Remote knowledge work tends to be done:

  • From home
  • From a co-working space*
  • From a cafe or open space*

*If you are reading this during early 2020 these most likely are not options.

Most remote workers create their own office, whether it be a spare room, a specific area in a small apartment or even a rolling suitcase with all one’s gear in it. We go into ideal setups when you are working from home (or wherever) in the Your Office section.

How

This really depends on who you work for… the more trust that exists, the more results matter over optics. Then it becomes a question of “how do I do my best work”?

All remote workers need to self manage to some extent.

No one will be looking over your shoulder when you're working from home. In order to self-manage, we need to know our purpose. Where do we fit into our team? Into our company? For that matter, where does our company fit into our industry?

Company core values, mission statements, and ongoing vision can help to outline purpose at a high level. But remote workers should feel free to take initiative and ask questions of their managers so that they understand their purpose and have the necessary information in order to get work done.

Some questions you might ask:

  • When is this due?
  • Who else is working on this?
  • What will I be working on after I finish this task?
  • What are the other tasks that others are working on?
  • Who will be reviewing this?
  • How does my work fit into the long-term goals of the company?

There are some tools that a company will want to adopt across the board (e.g. a project management tool, more in the Remote Toolkit section). Other times it’s about how the individual knowledge worker can best produce a certain result.

> Next Up: Your (Virtual Office)

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