Remote control: why we may never return to work as we knew it

Matilda Duffecy

In March, I returned to Australia for a friend’s wedding, just as our company had started posting guidelines about how to navigate the rising threat of Coronavirus. I arrived in Australia one week before the government announced all incoming travellers would need to undergo two weeks of quarantine. I attended the brilliant wedding two days before the government banned gatherings of more than 100 people. I left Tasmania on the last flight out of Launceston before the state closed its borders. And, the day before that, my government urged all Australians to reconsider their need to travel internationally. By some odd coincidence, my travel plans seemed to be perfectly aligned with the increasing levels of shutdown. The panic that had previously been swirling around me had reached fever pitch and I knew I had to make a very tough decision.

I organised a Zoom call with Sheri, our Head of HR, and James, our General Manager, and shared my anxieties with them. I explained that I wouldn’t be able to make it to work in the London office on Monday, as planned, because the risk was too great. And, though the whole team had already shifted to working from home by then, I’d have to work from a location in a different time zone. One that I will likely have to remain in for the foreseeable future.

Luckily for me, The Frameworks has been a proponent of flexible working for a long time. Our tight-knit team draws in talent from all over the UK, as well as France and America. Some of our Frameworkers are contending with long commute times every day; others with different time zones. There are also young families to take care of, and let’s not forget that not everyone is at their most productive between the hours of 9 and 5. These are some of the myriad reasons why flexibility is a prerequisite for many of today’s businesses.

“It’s uniquely connected to trust and responsibility,” says James. “Trust between an employer and employee, so that the employer knows the work will be delivered on time and to a high standard, and a responsibility on the part of the employee to deliver what’s needed.” From a logistics perspective there have to be processes in place to ensure flexibility is possible. “It’s why The Frameworks has been using Slack, Trello, Jira and Zoom for a number of years now. A big part of us all being able to work more flexibly was to transition the entire team to laptops, meaning that we were free to work from wherever we needed to.”

Sheri, a partner in the business for 20 years, recognises that things have shifted dramatically, for both The Frameworks and business as a whole in that time. “When I started out at IBM, you had to be in the office every day, but business has evolved. You can be in the office even if you’re thousands of miles away, and this goes beyond logistics. It’s a totally different mindset that recognises the value of the individual beyond the hours they sit at their desk.” Something that has proved to be truer than ever in the face of a global pandemic.

Even before lockdown, some of our Frameworkers were testament to this. Our Lead Developer Sergio, has struck a balance that works for him – working one and a half days in the London office and the rest of the week from his home in Devon. “Working from home forces us to be much more organised, and much more in contact with each other to make sure we are all on the same page with our projects,” he says. “I don’t feel like the quality or quantity of our work has been compromised. On the contrary, I actually believe that it has improved.”

Account Director Dana works from Detroit, and though she recognises that streamlining the logistics plays a huge role in working remotely, true success comes from a sense of the team. “Every individual at The Frameworks has always been committed to making things happen,” says Dana. “Whether it’s a last-minute request from a client, or making teammates feel like a valued, integral part of the business, no matter how far apart – that’s what has always defined Frameworkers. Pre-, during and post-pandemic, that's how I believe we'll always operate.”

It’s hard to ignore the overwhelming feeling that the way we all work has changed permanently. Google and Facebook have announced that employees will be working from home for the remainder of 2020 and Twitter has just announced a work-from-home “forever” policy. It feels like many companies will follow suit.

The elusive work-life balance that we were all chasing pre-Covid has evaded us permanently, but is this cause for despair? “Work and life have now effectively become one and the same,” says Creative Director David. “What works for one employee doesn’t necessarily work for others – whether that be living arrangements, looking after (or even home-schooling) kids or navigating the ups and downs of mental health.” Recognising that everyone has their own challenges and zones of prime productivity seems like a lesson that we’ve been learning very slowly, but it feels good to come to this realisation.

Furthermore, with many jobs being lost, there’s a groundswell of fresh faces on the job market who are urging LinkedIn to allow a “remote” location option on profiles. As we’ve all become au fait with the realities of remote work, the world is our office. And all the better for businesses that are able to operate in this way as the potential for attracting talent beyond the commutable radius of your headquarters is immense and the global talent pool is currently overflowing.

When your business attracts said talent, flexibility must continue. “When you’re lucky enough to have brilliant people working for you, you need to meet them where they are and help them do their best,” says Sheri. This is true of right now, but it’s perhaps the key to ensuring the possibilities of remote work go onwards and upwards. “Understanding the needs of your employees, from a professional and personal perspective is inextricably linked to the success of your business. You can’t separate work from life and, if you try to, I think you miss out on so much of the richness that could occur in between.”

As lockdown restrictions start to ease in the UK, some workers are trickling back to their offices. But for many, including Frameworkers, our remote working arrangement suits us, with health – mental and physical – being the top priority. And though I personally love working from the office and interacting with my colleagues face to face, my current working day is a world away from any of my former roles. The commute has been replaced with a surf, my lunch break is now my clocking-on time and at 6pm, rather than knocking off for the day, I’m greeted by my UK colleagues for our daily stand-up. Since I’ve been stationed in Australia, we’ve launched campaigns and sent numerous pieces of work live, sometimes turning projects around in a seemingly shorter time frame thanks to the time difference. It shows that you can buck the trend and still land on two feet.

As our remote work strengths continue to grow and we take on lessons our business’s policy of flexibility has afforded, we’re looking to the future of work that will impact businesses beyond ours. “The current situation has been a catalyst for all of us to re-examine the way we’ve always done things,” says Creative Strategist Maja. “Now that it’s patently clear it can be done, we ought to start thinking about how we shape and design the future of work in a healthier, more pragmatic and accessible way for everyone. It’s such an exciting opportunity; we should seize it with both hands.”

Whatever the future of work holds, I feel lucky to be part of a team that has weathered the storm thus far and is optimistic about what's ahead.