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’:
Thank you Tseen for the refreshing, positive and liberating view of remote working. I couldn’t agree with you more and find little real need to return to BAU (whatever that is now)!
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Thanks for reading, Penny. It can feel like many people think these things but are hesitant to push against the tide of ‘thou shalt return to campus with no rhyme or reason’ edicts that some universities seem to be spreading. Given the still precarious state of our sector, perhaps it’s not suprising.
Nice article Tseen. I must admit I’m a bit torn about WFH. Most of my professional staff including myself have at least one day per week WFH and we have zoom chat to support that ‘togetherness’ plus f2f/zoom meetings. That is our new BAU. Academic staff have tended to WFH more often post-COVID and we are trying to get them to come into campus more. When there are large numbers of staff WFH, the place seems to lose its vibrancy and when trying to encourage students to come onto campus more, I think it helps if there are lots of staff around rather than a bunch of empty offices, labs, etc. Can’t argue against the individual benefits of WFH though if your job allows it. Much easier to think, less interruptions and no one misses the commute!
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Hi Mark – thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂
I know change takes time but my questions would be: if vibrancy of campus or university life / student experience depends on physical presence only, then it’s going to be an increasing challenge. If ‘vibrancy’ means community energy and feelings of belonging to a dynamic space, then how could online or non-campus spaces still provide elements of this – in association with occaisonal on-location presence? There wouldn’t be a single strategy here but probably many articulated ones that all contributed to a sense of community/belonging. It would take a hecka lot of development for all staff and students to recalibrate how connection might happen, what preferences people might have if they had a good choice (current – usually negative – discussions about hybrid experiences a case in point), and whether we are prioritising inclusiveness in what we do. ‘Pivoting to online’ during the pandemic was in crisis mode and forced – no wonder people hated many aspects of it. Imagine, though, if we cultivated a curiousity and openness to how we might grow organic and self-generating communities around our institutions and professions.
Thanks for this article, I totally agree! Where I am we are not allowed to work from home or even have flexibility and it’s killing creativity and wellness. But it is not for all, not all can work productively from home and that should also be acknowledged 🙂
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I’m sorry to hear that there aren’t any options for this where you are. That must be frustrating. And, yes, definitely, WFH or remote work is not for everyone, just like thriving in open plan or in-person 100% of the time isn’t for everyone.
It all boils down to having choices, doesn’t it? Everyone has their own way of working best, and pushing everyone into one kind of context is not the most effective way to keep your folks happy.
I’m in a blended situation – all teaching is in person, on campus but meetings etc are typically now all Zoom affairs. It seems to me that we have more open, supportive and deeper discussions over Zoom that we might in-person.
I too “attend and participate in more things than ever.” I too “am living my absolute best introverted life and loving it.”
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That’s great to hear that you’re also living your best introverted life, Clare! For me, the relief from the ambient pressure of constant socialisation was something like exhaling at last when I didn’t realise I’d been holding my breath.