Recently, yet another of the articles about working from home and how it leads to loneliness and disconnectedness floated by on my Twitterstream. It was this one. Reading it spurred me to post a ranty thread (here) that seemed to resonate with a lot of folks. I said I’d write a post about it so here it is!
A word about my context right now to set the scene: I am a well supported and valued remote, full-time continuing staff member at my university. Recent life events mean that I am now a sole parent and have an increasingly dependent mum who lives with me (yes, I’m one of the ‘sandwich generation‘). My teaching has been online exclusively since 2020, and was significantly so before that. In-person things are rare but they do happen. I love working from home. I love being a remote staff member. I am more productive than when I was more consistently on campus (oh, commute, I miss thee not at all).
Given all this, I am extremely invested in ensuring that remote and flexible work modes have fair hearings. I am not a lesser worker or colleague because I am remote. I am not of less value to my employer because I am remote.
Yet countless articles would have me (and my employer) believe that remote work and not being in the office or on campus is just NOT ON.
What I hate about these pieces bemoaning remote work, or flexible work practices overall, is that they are almost always biased towards a 9-to-5 model of professional work that was already on its way out before COVID hit. Because that was such a fantastic way to do things, right? So inclusive. So safe for all people. So ideal for parents and carers. So good for the environment. So productive. A big bucket of flaming nope to all that.
And another big bucket of flaming nope to the assumption that being back in the office or on campus is the only or most desirable way to create connectedness, socialise, or embed organisational identity. There are so many ways to do this. Just because managers or organisational leaders choose not to contemplate or use them, and their go-to is shoving everyone into the same physical space to force ‘belonging’…well, the limited vision of what constitutes effective interaction added to ignorance around how team bonding actually happens is what needs to change.
In addition, these articles about remote work make it seem like it’s something you’d only consider in a crisis but not as an ongoing situation. No good if we’re now back to BAU. It’s only now, supposedly ‘post-COVID’, that I’ve seen the use of ‘BAU’ meaning ‘business as usual’. My usual association with BAU is the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit, courtesy of too many hours watching Criminal Minds. Now that I’ve managed to bring serial killers into conversation with going back to the office, I’ll move on…
I grappled with this post for a long time because I have so much to say about all this. It lines up all my favourite hobby-horses. I’ve decided to flip the usually negative script about remote work and focus on the reasons why I love working remotely. Implicit in this is an encouragement to managers/university execs to have a closer look at their valued workers who love working remotely (or more flexibly) and think about the cost of not keeping these folks happy.
REMOTE WORK HAS BROUGHT ME AND MY IMMEDIATE COLLEAGUES CLOSER TOGETHER.
Previously, we might’ve been in the same building and in physical proximity but our School’s teams were relatively separate in day-to-day activities and projects. My portfolio of work rarely crossed over with other teams so I’d only have occasional staff room interactions. Added to the mix was my mega-commute (1.5 hours on public transport, each way) that meant I was in and out of campus at fairly precise times and couldn’t afford to spend much time doing the ‘social oil’ thing. Now? We’re all on Teams, in different groups and chat streams. I spend all day with these colleagues in a much more visible way and I know more about their day-to-day work and who does what, what people get up to in down-time, who has which pets, etc. And I’d like to think that, even though I’m now remote, I’m much more ‘visible’ to them than I previously was.
REMOTE WORK IS MORE PRODUCTIVE
I cannot overstate this point enough. I work so much better when I work from home and it’s for a range of reasons:
Without the commute, I have more hours every week where my head is in the work space and I can get into a flow state fairly easily. I have clocked up many, many more hours of quality work time now that I work primarily at home. Before, I had to keep track of time to catch public transport (otherwise I end up getting home at 7-8pm), constantly had to live with the stress and weariness of commuting, and had little time to keep up with what others were doing or thinking.
On a very basic level, because I am happier and less tired working from home, this affects all areas of my life. For my work life specifically:
• I have more and better ideas.
• I am more strategic in my thinking and doing.
• I am more likely to seek out new people and ways to work with colleagues
• I have more energy to care about all aspects of my work and deal with challenges.
• I attend and participate in more events institutionally and internationally than I ever have before (except perhaps for a brief period in my pre-kids, well-resourced fellowship gig many years ago).
REMOTE WORK CAN BE MORE EFFECTIVE AND INCLUSIVE.
My teaching has been all online for the past almost three years, and was significantly online before that. I have regular participants who otherwise would not be able to come to a physical tutorial room or lecture theatre. My university has multiple campuses, many in regional areas, and increasingly more graduate researchers are based internationally. It is great to be able to offer our entire program to everyone – the playing field is much more level (but not levelled, given tech inequities and time zone biases). A much stronger awareness of what it means to offer equitable access to programs and resources has meant I’ve thought more about how things articulate across a/synchronous modes and what resource scaffolding might be necessary. I know my edtech and learning design colleagues will be rolling their eyes at this. They’ve been fighting this good fight for so many years. Let’s not go backwards in our thinking around access and equity for our classes. I’ve heard from researchers at many universities – from PhD researchers to senior academics – who are living with chronic illness and other conditions, have caring responsibilities, or have financial restrictions on travel that they can only keep in the loop and feel recognised as belonging to the university community if the normality of online access is maintained and well managed. Others have written about how accessing things remotely make things possible and better than ‘normal’, which had required much effort and stress on their part. Alongside this is the amount of literature out there about how not being in a physical office space or campus is a relief for those who regularly experienced microaggressions or felt unsafe in their work environments for a range of reasons. Contemplating going back to in-person events that service a very narrow slice of our university communities feels wrong, especially when ‘hybrid’ events are still generally poorly done for those who are not in-person.
REMOTE WORK ENABLES ME TO NETWORK MORE EFFECTIVELY.
I am very active on social media, especially Twitter, because that is how I do the absolute majority of my connecting and networking. It is indeed my local staff room, and many of my favourite workmates and colleagues from around the world and past working lives are there. It is where I’ve found collaborators, been offered great professional opportunities, and learned about the work of others that then generate new connections. I don’t discount in-person conferences or events entirely but, if I was weighing up what is better value for my time and aligned with my personal commitments, online networking would win hands down every time.
REMOTE WORK IS NEVER LONELY.
Many of those frustrating articles paint remote working, or working from home, as a lonely experience. Some folks may get lonely. I know many who never think of this as an issue and, in fact, view it as a liberating way to connect more with those who are most energising, supportive, and positive in their work lives. I am never lonely as a remote staff member because I always make sure I stay connected and feed my social needs in ways that align with my work routines. I see more colleagues across the areas of my professional and academic lives than when I was harnessed with campus commutes for the majority of the week. As I mentioned already, I attend and participate in more things than ever. I am living my absolute best introverted life and loving it.
Here are just a few of the articles about the loneliness of remote work, which do not question the toll of forced socialisation and 9-to-5 office-going that’s ‘normal’:
End of the office: the quiet, grinding loneliness of working from home (The Guardian)
10 Tips to Avoid Loneliness When Working From Home or Working Remotely (Owl Labs)
Five Tips To Avoid Feeling Lonely When Working Remotely (Forbes)
The Hidden Toll of Remote Work (The Atlantic)