Why Are We So Bad at Remote Work?

Reading time: 6 minutes

One of the things that keeps baffling me is why even people who could draw tons of benefits from embracing fully flexible remote work are still attached to the status quo – aka wasting their time in traffic to go to an office, not measuring their productivity, or closing their eyes to waste, gossip, microaggressions, lack of inclusion, and other toxic office behaviors – and thus nurture the status quo.   

It baffles me.

Mind you – these behaviors are featured even by highly educated people who HAVE or who can CREATE choice for themselves. But when I talk to them, their sole argument for choosing the good ol’ office work is: “I like it better this way.”

IN LOVE WITH OUR COMFORT ZONE     

So, what the heck is going on?

One of the first explanations I can come up with is that we, humans, are essentially allergic to change (our hunter-gatherer ancestors would probably laugh in our faces).

Now, this allergy gets really funny when we consider how much change we experience and how intense the speed of change today it.

Could this love affair with our comfort zone simply be a reactive behavior to the volume of change around us? Could this simply be a cheap, low-hanging fruit in terms of self-soothing and coping with a world we fail to understand (when did we actually understand the world?!)?

Be that as it may, our attachment to our comfort zone and our fixed mindset is one of the first tough adversaries of remote work. Even though the pandemic gave us two years of possibility to change, it was not enough – our skulls are so much thicker and our ability to rationalize so much stronger that even after two years of possibility we were only too happy to revert back to our automatic habits.

 

A DEEP LACK OF MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL PRESENCE

Speaking of automatic habits – what I find really funny is that the greatest promoters of in-person work are also the same people whose heads turn like a police car light the moment someone enters a room or something on their phone catches their attention.

Reactive to their core, these people are unable to focus – mental presence – and to connect deeply with the people around them – emotional presence. Therefore, they rely heavily on physical presence to take care of relationship building for them, while they get busy entertaining their reactivity.

To be honest, this is not entirely people’s fault.

How much money have companies spent in reducing reactivity and in training people on emotional intelligence (which includes self-awareness and self-mastery)?

From the Industrial Revolution companies chose to treat people as “human resource” – aka an almost robotic sketch upon which we are supposed to install “hard skills” so people can deliver back value that is narrowly confined to their technical / functional competencies.

Forget about the complexity of being a human. Forget about emotions and spiritual existence – those don’t belong in the workplace, as they could impede with our cartesian perspective of homo technicus.

Right?

Well, here is the trick, fellas.

From the Industrial Revolution we have already shifted into the Knowledge Economy. And in the knowledge economy you really, really need people to bring their whole selves to work. Or, at your own peril, you will miss creativity, innovations, and deep human connections that drive growth in your company. And those are deeply seated into people’ full mental and emotional presence.

Don’t believe me? Ask the CEO of Nike, who was only too eager to blame remote work for the lack of innovation in his company. This all when implementing flexible remote work is an innovation in itself. Duh!

Therefore, if you are not able to feature mental and emotional presence in person – to be quiet, to focus, to listen, to take it all in, to be empathetic, to facilitate quality deep conversations - imagine how much harder this gets online.

SKY-SCREAMING LACK OF BASIC COMMUNICATION SKILLS

Beyond the lack of emotional intelligence, there is one more thing driving me nuts: senior professionals’ lack of basic communication skills.

The same people who are so eager to go back to the office are also the first to:

  1. Drop by your desk unannounced and interrupt – as if the whole world revolved around their urgent needs.
  2. Call you on the phone unannounced – as if all you do the whole day is lying around waiting for the phone to ring.
  3. Write WhatsApp / chat messages in one-liners.
  4. Hijack conversations during virtual meetings in parallel chat because they get bored.
  5. Whisper and fail to focus during in-person meetings
  6. Interrupt when others are speaking
  7. Fail to focus and take in essential meeting points, then complain they didn’t hear it, they don’t know where it is etc.

You get the picture. The same reactive human beings who failed to pass the test of mindful communication, both synchronous in person and virtual and asynchronous, now come to tell us how great it is to work from an office – their favorite hunting ground for fluffy talks, interruptions, and immediate gratification.

Again, are only humans to blame?

Nope.

How much budget have companies spent consistently in training their workforce on quality communications across all platforms? How many team leaders have actually gone through a solid, robust meeting facilitation and asynchronous communication training?

At best, such training sessions come squeezed as part of some all-encompassing leadership development program reserved for a handful of people who made it into their company’s “talent pool.”

Until then, hasta la vista – communicate like barbarians, we don’t care. But we do expect you to be considerate, productive, upbeat, and to deliver great value together.

LACK OF PRODUCTIVITY MEASUREMENT

If there is something I learnt as an entrepreneur is that my time is worth its value in gold.

I only want to do four things with my time of this Earth: live, love, learn, and lead. The greatest capital sin anyone can enforce upon me is to make me waste my time. I have 0 tolerance for waste of any kind – and time waste is the worst of all.

This is why I track my time obsessively to make sure it’s well spent. Unfortunately, very few companies cultivate their people to do that.

As long as we continue to pay people for their time (a number of hours) and not for their outcomes, this will not get fixed. People will strive to spend their time for which they get paid as lightly as possible (gossip in the kitchen or a long lunch, anyone?), while a few die-hards will work overtime so at least some outcomes get done.

This is a cauldron of waste and companies bask in it. That is, until figures get into the red. Then, companies start to lay off people because hey - what better way to reduce waste that getting rid of your people, right?

A CULTURE OF SUPERFICIALITY AND SHORT-TERMISM

All the symptoms above fit greatly with the short-term culture that we even fail to see omnipresent all around us.

Short-term results (long live the stock markets and all greedy investors!), short-term functionality of goods sold, short-term impact of learning, short-term relationships, short-term strategies, short-term lived lives…

People who actually care about quality think long-term. They think long-term about themselves, their bodies and their health, their relationships, their outcomes, their teams and their organizations. This is why they choose to be rested over trapped in traffic, focused over depleted, present over reactive, and autonomous over infantile.

Remote work is not for people who like being told what to do. And remote work is not for people who like telling other people what to do top-down. Fortunately for some, and unfortunately for the rest of us, there are still offices for that.

Embracing remote work as an individual, team, and organization is a matter of personal, mental, emotional, and leadership maturity. Enter it under duress – like during a pandemic – or when you lack skills and are too immature for it, and you, your people, your company, and your results will suffer.

Fix the human elements first and you and your company will thrive beyond your wildest dreams.

PS: This article was inspired by the approaching RUNNING REMOTE conference that will take place in Lisbon on April 22-24. Leaders of global distributed organizations will congregate to share data and best practices on time and location flexible work. Thank God for these beacons of hope, showing the way into a more humane, long-term quality-centered future of work.

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