How Remote Workers and Flextime Are Changing How We All Work

Your Work From Home Strategy Needs to Be Individual,  LiliGraphie, iStock, May 2015
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Today I’m building B4J’s social media calendar for the week, editing articles, writing this one, and doing laundry. Tomorrow I’ll be at the doctor and then clearing out my inbox, working on another piece, and doing some research. Every day is a little different and every day is a lot the same. That’s the funny thing about working from home – it’s not as different from office work as you’d think. I’ve been working from home part time for years, but this year is the first year I’m exclusively working from my home office – and occasionally from my local Starbucks – and the biggest adjustment for me personally isn’t in the work itself, but in how much I have to rely on myself for disciplining and structuring my day. But it’s also hard to adjust to the communication challenges that come with not being in an office with my colleagues.

Remote work and freelancing from home are an increasingly big piece of the employment landscape. Remote workers help employers save on office and infrastructure costs and for some sectors, the inherent flexibility of remote work – not bound by time or space – is the right fit for the job. Coding, writing, digital art, and publicity are all fields where remote work comes naturally. Publicists are already on call and writers can write anywhere. But in other sectors, remote work is much harder to integrate – no matter how much it might be desired by workers. Some jobs just have to be done on site, and others require a level of teamwork that’s easier to achieve in person. Writing Monday on B4J, Mike Haberman points out that the future of work may involve a new gap – a flexibility gap.

As more and more companies move to remote workplaces or incorporate remote work as part of an overall employment picture, tech companies and workspace providers are responding. Late in 2015, Inc. announced that Slack, a wildly popular mobile business-collaboration software, was their Company of the Year. As of December, Slack had 1.7 million users, 480,000 of them paid. I’m a Slack user myself, with a free account that use to collaborate with various groups of freelance writers and editors. It’s quick, cleanly designed, and easy to use on desktop, tablet and phone. Even as a free user I have no complaints about its functionality or its regular updates – something that’s rare for social media platforms. Slack keeps its focus on communication and facilitation and because it sells accounts with expanded features and archiving capabilities, it has no need to make user communication a monetizable space. That is, Slack doesn’t need to turn individual moments of interaction and communication into advertising space, because it’s already selling an excellent freemium communication and collaboration platform. It’s not just a chat program; it’s enterprise software.

Social media too is beginning to respond to popularity of Slack and remote project management software. As Jessica pointed out in December, Facebook At Work is leaving beta and being adopted in more and more workplaces. Facebook at Work has already been adopted by Club Med and other mid to large sized firms but it will also be targeting small businesses. Facebook At Work has the advantage of being familiar to most potential users – after all, most of us are already on Facebook – but that familiarity is a double-edged sword. We’re familiar with using Facebook at work to waste time, not Facebook At Work to be productive. I’m not sure that the solution to workers updating their social media accounts during work time is work-exclusive social media. The draw of using regular Facebook at work is in not working, and in reaching out to your non-work friends. The draw of Facebook At Work must be something else – improving work as we know it, be it through eliminating email, tracking project progress, or making remote workers feel like they’re really in the room.

Although Slack doesn’t offer any specific feature that sets it apart from offerings from Microsoft, Salesforce and, yes, Facebook – instead preferring to integrate and work with other apps, rather than replace them – users respond to Slack in a way they haven’t to other work communication programs. It’s, well, really popular. And that popularity, driven by users, is indicative of a new trend in enterprise software development. As Jeff Bercovici puts it in INC.,

“Slack is the exemplar of a trend analysts have dubbed the consumerization of enterprise technology. It’s the idea that the ubiquity of smartphones and the popularity of apps such as Facebook, Instagram, and Candy Crush have changed our collective expectations of how software should look and function, creating huge opportunities for business applications as intuitive and user-friendly as the ones people use for fun.”

The ubiquity of smartphones and remote working is changing the shape of business software and how work is actually performed, both in and outside of the office. Those factors – increased connectedness and increased distance – have made workers both more independent and more tied to work. We are working harder and working longer, checking email on the weekends and first thing in the morning. We also have more opportunities to determine our work life balance, as flex time and remote work becomes increasingly common. The good will of workers in this environment is therefore increasingly important to the success of enterprise technology, especially enterprise communication technology – we have to want to use it.

Physically, I’m writing this article from my home office in Toronto on my laptop. But across multiple tabs and applications – Slack, Podio, GoTo Meeting, Twitter, and yes, Facebook – I’m participating in discussions with colleagues in Texas, Oklahoma, Wales, and Quebec. Later today I’ll welcome a client into my office for a consultation on Skype and then check in with some projects on Podio. My work, freelance and remote, involves a whole host of communication and collaboration applications. How, when and why I use them has just as much affect on my office-bound colleagues, as their work does on mine. And we are, both groups, reshaping the landscape of enterprise software with our changing needs.

That flexibility gap that Mike Haberman identifies isn’t just in who gets to enjoy work flexibility, but in who is prepared for it and who has the right tools. Those of us who grew up on the internet are used to turning a variety of free and freemium tools to our purposes. Our hobbies are networked, and our work has been, since our school days – group projects on Facebook; class forums on some creaky learning management system – remote and collaborative. Anti-distraction apps are, and have been, as ubiquitous as apps to bring us together – the problem of this new kind of work is something we’ve been tackling for years, and enterprise software is finally catching up. The challenge for enterprise applications isn’t to replicate social media or to combat it, but to contend with a changing place-space-time of work; one that is increasingly variable.

But now, this empowered consumer of enterprise applications, needs to put her laundry in the dryer and walk away from all of her offices for a few minutes.

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