I have been a full-time remote worker for the last 15 years, while leading an international career for worldwide IT leaders, and driving innovation and digital transformation.
Incompatible? I think not.
Initially, it was because after 10 years abroad, I wanted to come back to my hometown; and at the same time, I did not want to give up on my career in a worldwide leading IT company, and I wanted to retain the international scope of my job. Unfortunately, in France, outside of Paris, there are not many blue-chip companies’ HQs around. So I had to make a choice: going back to my roots and giving up on many aspects that I loved in my career, or investing in my future and staying in a capital city far from my family.
You can’t have it all, they say.
Mmmh? Let’s see… Back then (we’re talking early 2000’), we were just starting connecting emails from our PCs at home via a 56k modem with a horrid squeaky noise – yes I’m showing my age! I had literally started in a new company 3 months back, I was still in my trial period, and that day, it just daunted on me that remote work was the way to go. I went to see my boss, Emmanuel, a Belgian guy, employed in Brussels, and living in Stockholm with his wife. Like me, he had an international job requiring a lot of travel; he was a bit surprised when I asked him if I could move from Paris, where I was officially employed, to Marseilles, where the company did not even have an office. But he said yes.
In true anglo-saxon company culture, you can be empowered and be given the chance to try things on. If it does not work, then you get back to where you were before, but at least you can try.
It worked so well that I have been working from Marseilles for the last 13 years, evolving as I saw fit in the company, at international level, on bleeding edge digital transformation topics like Cloud, IoT, big data, etc… Over the years, remote collaborations tools have evolved greatly, and today, I can rely on video, instant messaging, sharing platforms. A whole different ball game.
I also like to tell the story of another boss I interviewed with, after Emmanuel: Paul, a South African, who was living in London when we met virtually, in other words, via video; one could object that I could have got on a plane, it was not that far; but we went through our discussions very naturally using remote collaboration tools, and I only met him physically one year after I joined his team. It made no difference to either of us.
And then another Paul, living in Glasgow; another video interview. “We’re a team scattered across the globe, being a remote worker is an asset; we all work from home” he said. I could go on with more examples about how I have recruited myself via video only, but I’ll stop there for a minute to thank those people for their open mindedness and trust: Emmanuel, Paul², if you read this, I’m sure you will recognize yourselves: thank you!
Over the years, I’ve met many people who seemed rather wary about this way of working and living. And of course, I have encountered many objections to changing what is considered the normative way of working.
“You must be feeling lonely…”
Actually, not at all. First of all, video has changed things dramatically, and although it’s indeed not quite the same as meeting people in real, it’s pretty close! On the other hand, working from home means more flexibility in my work timetable, which means in turn, that instead of spending time on the train commuting, I can do some sport, or have a coffee with friends, or get involved in volunteering groups. In fact, it’s even the opposite of feeling lonely, because I get to expand my circle of acquaintances a lot more, and I can spend more quality time with my family and friends.
“I don’t know how you do it, I could not!”
Ok, I admit, this probably does not suit everyone’s character. Not so much because of the risk of isolation, but rather because it requires a lot of discipline and organization: you can’t spend all day in front of your computer in your pyjamas; you have to get ready in the morning as if you were going into the office. Shower, make up (remember you’re on video!): the whole shebang, except maybe the fact that you can keep your flip flops under the desk… You also have to adopt an adequate discipline of working, of reporting, and of communicating with your hierarchy, teams, partners and customers. Levers of communications are not the same, they have to be consciously actioned and planned. Ironically, you also need discipline to stop working. It’s all too tempting to get back to your computer for that last very important email at 11:30PM…
“My boss does not agree” / “I need to check that my employees are working.”
That’s more often than not a cultural issue: company culture, state of mind, country habits. In anglo-saxon companies, you are measured on results. Time spent does not warranty quality and results. As long as you deliver, you can organize yourself as you see fit. Trust and empowerment, I would argue, will even motivate employees. But as they say, “trust, but verifiy”: again, you have to set up some specific mechanisms to validate the progress of your employees, or communicate stepping stones to your hierarchy.
“My kids (my partner, my dog, my grand-mother..) would be too noisy!”
When I’m saying “work from home”, I don’t mean in the middle of the lounge with the children playing football with the cat, and the tv on, while your partner is hoovering. I mean having a separate room, a dedicated office, albeit small. As long as you can close the door. And even then, you might get interrupted sometimes by a barking dog while you’re on this very important video conference. You know what? It’s not that terrible. 13 years ago, when remote work was starting, people would judge any interruption as unbearable, unprofessional and rude. Nowadays, as more and more people work remotely, and as the lines between work and private life have blurred, it’s much more tolerated. We all have a family, a dog, a parrot, a grandmother prone to interrupt us. It is not the end of the world if it’s controlled.
“What about the gossips at the coffee machine?”
“What else”? Allright, so you don’t get that. You drink your coffee alone, looking out through the window. And that can be nice too. Or instead, you catch up on a couple of chores, which saves you time for later. And as I said above, you can always go out for a coffee with someone, outside of your company. I’ll come back to that…What’s more, there is nothing to say that you cannot go to some office parties now and again!
“Out of sight, out of mind; what about career progression?”
Well, it depends what you have in mind when you’re thinking about your career. As far as I’m concerned, I have been able to change jobs many time within the same company, navigate all sorts of different topics and business units, and do things I enjoyed. I’ve been working on very innovative problematics. My network inside and outside the company is huge, and I can rely on it. I am realistic though, and I could probably have evolved a bit faster if I had been sat in an office near God, but it’s not what I wanted, not at the detriment of a more qualitative work environment. That extra 10 or 15% more in career progression was insignificant for me, compared to what I gained.
By the way, I have not talked too much about travelling, but indeed, I do spend time on planes, going to meet my colleagues, partners and customers. So I start building a relationship when I meet them, and then maintain it virtually, or on the opposite, I start virtually, and then consolidate when I meet them. Either way works. It just means – and more and more people do this – that on every video meeting, you spend the first 5 minutes on chit chat, that you often use instant messaging, or just call people out of the blue to get some news. Again, different mechanisms of socialization, but also very efficient.
Changing the logic and opening up; towards a more balanced life
There is one more thing I learned over the years: my life has been much more balanced; not just in the way that time has been allocated between work and private life, but also in terms of diversity, of challenging myself, of opening up. I’ve realized that when you’re in a company (especially a very big one), and you always meet the same sort of people at the coffee machine, at an after-work drink, or on a team building offsite, in fact you always evolve in the same world, the same culture. You speak the same language full of acronyms. And this is also true for your partners and customers in fact. It’s comfortable. But it can be sterile. Not having this office environment at hand, means that I had to get out and meet people outside of my scope, outside of my comfort zone. Get involved in volunteering groups. Not always easy, but so enriching! And I am convinced that spending time outside of my official remit helps me do my job better: it helps put things into context, enables me to take a step back and to challenge my beliefs. I also means that I have to learn to explain what I’m doing at work, and confronts me with other work cultures, which is invaluable to be flexible, adaptable and innovative. Now. I purposely have not talked about the known benefits of working from home, like family life balance or increased productivity, but I will finish this reflection with a couple of interesting figures for the logical minds.
Longer commutes increase loneliness, presenteism is expensive
- A recent study from researchers at the University of the West of England found that workers equate a 20-minute increase in commute time, with a 19% pay cut in terms of job satisfaction. (Businessinsider).
- Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam lists long commutes as one of the most substantial predictors of social isolation. He suggests that every 10 minutes spent commuting results in 10% fewer “social connections”—connections that make us feel happy. (Quartz)
- In France presenteeism costs more than absenteeism.. According to Le Figaro, the cost of presenteism in France has been estimated bewteen 13 and 25 Billion euros a year: an employee present in the office but tired or ill is unproductive, which represents a considerable cost for his/her company.
Just as the 20th century was ending, a reporter asked Tim Berners-Lee, who was the inventor of the World Wide Web, what we should be expecting in the 21st century. Here’s his response: “The next century is going to turn our world upside down. The Internet combines people and ideas faster than they have ever been combined before, and that combination changes everything. The great thing about technology is that it forces us to figure out the world from scratch. In so doing, it gives us a chance to rediscover what’s really important. So maybe the 21st century won’t turn your world upside down. Maybe it will turn that world right side up.”
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