This is my story published as part of The Remote Working Chronicles
I’m Gren. I live in a village in the South East of England about 30 miles outside of London with my wife and our teenage daughter. It's a great place to live with a canal at the end of our garden. I run a small consultancy called PM Results that I’ve been running since 2014 and currently have 4 books in print on Remote Work and Project Management.
As well as doing consultancy work and writing books, I’m also a prolific blogger on both project management and remote work and post regularly on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
I have a long and varied work history mainly in IT. When I left University I was determined I was going to be a technical programmer for life and managed to work only in assembly code for around 3 years. However the idealism of youth eventually dissipated and I graduated to project management. I’ve run multi-million dollar projects with many of the larger ones involving elements of the team working at multiple UK and worldwide locations.
I’m a keen tennis player and watcher and for my sins support Queens Park Rangers, a West London football club.
I go back a long way with remote work! I ran a remote work pilot for a large UK Insurance company in 2005. As you might imagine it was a pretty novel idea back then. People who took part in the pilot worked one day per week remotely, with the company wanting to see if it could save on office space and costs (sound familiar?). Line speeds were poor and broadband expensive, so most employees taking part in the pilot were using dial-up. Back then, there were almost no applications to facilitate working from home. Videoconferencing over the internet was unheard of and most people worked off-line and then connected every hour or so to synchronise emails and documents with the servers at head office. For the employees the pilot was an unqualified success. They loved being freed from the grind of the commute, most started work earlier and finished later but liked the opportunity to work with fewer interruptions and get on top of their week’s work. Sadly when I reported the results to the company’s board the senior management were unimpressed. They had concerns about disempowerment of managers who might not be able to track employees down, control and measurement of the tasks that employees were carrying out, arranging meetings with people who were out of the office and trust that people were actually working and not watching TV all day. Things have changed a bit since then.
I ran a completely remote project from my study over 2018/19 with teams in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. You very soon start to notice big differences in how to manage people from so many different cultures and handle yourself when you rarely meet people face-to-face. That project inspired me to write my first book on remote work, The Remote Project Manager which was first published in mid 2019.
I love working remotely but when I started running a project remotely I did initially find that hard. Anyone who thinks managing remotely is just like managing people in offices but with video conferencing tagged on has got it very wrong! It’s a learning experience that’s for sure.
It does take time to adapt to having a more arms length relationship with the people you’re working with. I definitely suffered feelings of isolation, particularly where I was working with teams who were based in offices. You don’t get any of the ‘water cooler’ talk so it’s easy to feel out of the loop with decisions being made on the ground that you’re not involved in but need to catch up with. I was often running meetings with ten or more people from all around the world and because of bandwidth limitations it wasn’t always possible to show my face or see theirs - the video calls would be voice only. That really isn’t good for relationship building and I think it's really important to see the people you’re working with so I always make a point of putting the camera on at my end when I’m talking to someone new. The other take from running projects remotely is that it’s much harder work than in an office. The pressure to keep on top of things is more intense and so much time is consumed by meetings that you often find you’re working extra hours to keep ahead of the game.
Most of my remote work has been with a couple of companies who I’ve worked with for a while. One of those is based in the US with people in Canada, Spain and Hungary. Everyone in the company works remotely but in better times they all get together every three months for a ‘Hackathon’ - meeting each other face to face (and in the bar!) and setting an agenda to try to improve things and listen to new ideas.
From my own blogging and research I know that despite the current desperate times, there’s still plenty of remote work out there, right from people advertising their gig style of service on sites like Fiverr to the increasing numbers of agencies appearing who specialise in remote work. I’ve written a couple of blog posts you might be interested in on How to Find a Remote Job and How to Pass a Remote Interview.
Remote work isn’t going away post pandemic. Of that I’m very sure.
The best is flexibility. While I appreciate that not everyone can do this, I can structure my day almost however I want. I’ll often just insert a break for a long walk or read a book or watch a Netflix show!
I actually think that’s healthy anyway. Too much screen time and concentration lowers productivity and it’s not good for your body to be sat in the same position for hours. To me this is one of the big pluses for remote work but I am concerned at the rising use of tools that monitor how many keystrokes remote workers are producing, the sites they’re looking at and capturing screen shots of what they’ve been up to. These tools can be useful but not for snooping on employees - that strikes me as demotivating for the people being monitored and very poor management. Measure people by results not how many keystrokes they produce each day! I have a blog post on that too!
What is the worst? Well it’s too easy to just jump back on the computer to finish something off. It’s something I constantly have to fight against, particularly when it’s 8pm on a Saturday night and feeling like I’ve nothing better to do, I’ll log in to finish something off. If you’re into remote work then it’s important to get a clear demarcation between home life and work. Flexibility is great, being unable to switch off is not!
One of the great things about remote work just now is the explosion in availability of really useful tools - the pandemic is driving innovation.
I absolutely love Meetter. It overcomes one of the worst aspects of remote work, meeting overload. I’ve been to a few Remote Work Conferences now and it’s one of the issues that constantly comes up. Meetter have thrown conventional wisdom away, gone back to first principles and redesigned the whole concept of meetings. Take a look, it's great and I’m convinced it’s going to be really big.
Another tool I really like is KBee and another great example of innovative thinking. If you’re setting up a company to work remotely then a knowledge base is an absolute must. KBee lets you turn your Google Drive into an instant knowledge base - I really like it because it’s very simple but so useful - just a great idea done well.
Finally I find Krisp really useful - it’s a noise cancellation app and it’s startling how effective it is. My home office looks out onto the road and we went through a few months of the gas company replacing old metal pipe with plastic. Lots of noise usually when I was in the middle of video conferences. Krisp was amazing, it cut the whole lot out.
This one’s tricky, there have been quite a few funny moments but I think the best one was celebrating the 50th birthday of the CEO of one of the companies I work with. The guys had planned a secret celebration before our weekly team meeting - the idea was for about 20 people to sing Happy Birthday in a coordinated way over video conference - with one guy providing accompaniment on electric guitar. We spent 10 minutes of rehearsal and to be honest that didn’t go too well! This was probably the first time that anyone has tried an intercontinental rendition of Happy Birthday. It was of course a total failure in musical terms but a totally hilarious experience for everyone, including the CEO, who despite the pretty terrible rendition was quite touched!
Be prepared. Remote work isn’t for everyone, I know someone who volunteered to go into work despite a period of rapid transmission of COVID and a lockdown in the UK. He just found it really hard to cope with working at home. The upsides of remote work are pretty obvious but look at the potential downsides and work out a strategy for how you’re going to cope when it doesn’t go so well. In fact be proactive and try to do stuff to make sure the bad things don’t hit you.
At times you will almost certainly feel isolated and lonely - you won’t have the same social network as you would have if you were face-to-face with people in an office, so see if anyone at work is organising social events either online or somewhere where people can easily get to. If not, think about volunteering for that role. You should also work on your social network outside of work. Once you’re working from home it becomes an even more important part of your life and a release we all need. I’ve also found that working remotely leaves you with a level of uncertainty about how well you’re performing. It’s much harder to compare against what others in the team are achieving. If you’re not careful this is the start of the slippery slope to overwork to try to really impress. To help counter this, I think it’s more important than ever for managers to provide feedback and for employees to ask for it.
Wow, sounds like the interview question I’ve always hated! ‘Where do you think you’ll be in 5 years time’! I’m really switched on by what I’m doing at the moment and even better, it’s just about paying the rent! I’ve loved writing the books and loved the research I’ve been involved in associated with remote work. There are so many new tools and ideas being promoted. Tragedy has always driven innovation whether that’s been wars or pandemics and this period is no exception. I’ve been looking at and reviewing new tools and at the rate they’re appearing, it feels like a job for life, but it is inspiring to see how clearly people are thinking and how much they’re thinking outside of the box. When the current emergency situation subsides post pandemic the world will be a very different place and I’m really excited to try to stay at the forefront of what’s going on out there. This is a period of change and innovation unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed in my life before and I find that truly exciting. Better to ride this wave than find it coming crashing down over you! So while the project management side of my business has kept me earning, my ambition is to move my consultancy more towards remote work and that’s something I’ve been working hard to achieve for the last 18 months.
First point is that it’s not going away, however I do expect resistance from blinkered and unimaginative politicians. When the pandemic in the UK fell to low levels in the summer, the UK government started to prepare a campaign to push people to go back to the office and were considering making it compulsory for government employees to do so. The second wave put paid to that but I’d expect some countries to follow suit, while others will actively support remote work. If you consider productivity is the ratio between hours worked and cost then with more work being carried out at less cost, remote work promises the biggest increase in productivity for office workers since accountants and banks replaced offices full of people working on calculators with a spreadsheet. The countries who promote it can steal a march on the ones whose mentality is stuck in the old model of offices and city centres packed full of commuting workers.
Many are forecasting the hybrid model as the way that office work will function in the future with employees splitting their time between the office and home, but without a very rigid regime I can’t see this can work. To my mind it’s going to result in people coming into work to have video conferences with people who are working at home and what is the point of that. My feeling is that offices will still exist but in a very limited form and that teams will get together face-to-face on a regular basis - I’d suggest once per month - in rented spaces that they can all get to. I’d expect to see an explosion of companies organising these events with transport and rented space provided, post pandemic. This will facilitate social mixing, problem solving and creativity. I think the worries in the creative industries about remote work are overdone. It’s not as if people are being creative every minute, like everything else it's a combination of inspiration and perspiration. Monthly get togethers can be a bigger driver of inspiration than gathering everyone into a meeting room in yet another day in the office.
Remote work will change the world - there’s some really good research that has been carried out in the UK on the effect of remote work. There’s an article covering this in The Conversation that you should read.
P.S: Originally published here