• Business People
  • September 23, 2020
  • Czas czytania

Remote working, or how modern managers deal with NASA technology

Remote working, or how modern managers deal with NASA technology

Home office work is no novelty. Contrary to a potentially common belief, it is also not a product of the pandemic that has spread in recent months. This system of work is almost 50 years old, and its emergence has been associated with two phenomena that occurred in the Unites States in the 1970s, both of which boiled down to one thing: a limited ability and necessity to commute to work. One of them was the increase in the number of cars commuting from suburban areas to offices and factories located within metropolises; as a result, cities were becoming crowded, congested and dirty, while the workers, stuck in seemingly endless traffic jams, were constantly late for work (not to mention the disastrous impact of exhaust fumes on air quality and health). The situation of workers who were unable to get to work on time was also not helped by the fuel crisis induced by soaring oil prices. As a consequence of the embargo imposed on the USA by OAPEC member states following the outbreak of the Arab–Israeli War in October 1973, the price of oil jumped from approx. $2 per barrel in 1970 to $35 just a few years later![1] Petrol stations became deserted, and whereas at first employees had been unable to do their jobs due to being forever stuck in traffic jams, now they could not get to work at all because of fuel shortages. The employers had a tough nut to crack. The only reasonable solution at that time was to let their employees perform their work in the comfort of their own homes.

 

Today, it may seem unfathomable how one could work from home without a mobile phone or computer at their disposal (first home computers were built as late as at the turn of the 1980s [2]. Indeed, many of us would have a hard time trying to imagine work without Internet access! That's totally out of this world, right? But it was the space experts who were responsible for developing the concept of remote working. If you have managed to send a man to the moon, perhaps you might somehow be able to deal with traffic jams? – asked by a city planner, it was one of the questions that prompted NASA engineer Jack Nilles, creator of the concepts of 'teleworking' and 'telecommuting', to abandon space conquest and start promoting remote working. Of course, in 1973, remote working looked completely different than nowadays; as I have mentioned, there were no personal computers, hardly anybody had even heard of the Internet, and phone calls were too expensive to make from home. Nilles's concept consisted in dividing a company and creating the so-called satellite work centres, equipped with minicomputers connecting them with the company headquarters and mainframe. The centres were to be set up in the suburbs, which would allow employees to get to work on foot or by bike. The project's lab rat was a Californian insurance company that wanted to establish the first satellite centre (for 30 people) with Nilles in order to cut down its operating costs and, at the same time, attract new employees thanks to the home office option. Thanks to this solution, staff turnover at the company dropped from 33% to zero, while their productivity increased by 18%![3] Although the idea was adopted by a small group of workers in very specific industries, it failed to become the permanent rule in work systems offered by entrepreneurs.

The appearance of personal computers and the Internet proved to be a breakthrough moment for remote working. Thanks to that, as years went by, it became possible to share documents remotely, participate in teleconferences and video calls, or cooperate in real time with people on the other side of the globe. However, it is still not the technology and the possibilities that come with it that determine this solution's popularity (or lack thereof). Nilles writes that the biggest hurdle in the development of teleworking still lies between our ears: [4]change does not come easy and tends to be difficult to accept.  That was the case in the 1970s, as it is today and will probably remain so in the foreseeable future. Many managers still cannot imagine a situation in which they somehow lose full control of the employee. In their opinion, direct supervision is the only guarantee of high productivity and employee commitment ('How can I make sure you do your job properly if I can't keep an eye on you all the time, and instead of verifying the process, the most I can do is assess the end result of your work?'). On the other hand, remote working is also a test of prowess for the employee – self-discipline, good time management and independence are but a few of the traits that allow you to work efficiently from home. If you find it difficult to motivate yourself and focus on your work, especially if there is so much to do at home ('The laundry won't do itself, and since I'm home anyway... It'll only take 5 minutes! While I'm at it, I might take out the rubbish and finally hang that shelf my wife has been nagging me about for the last six months!'), then remote working is clearly not meant for you. Therefore, the biggest challenges facing remote work are (for managers) changing our way of thinking, getting rid of convictions about the ineffectiveness of such a style of work and building relations with employees based on mutual trust, and (for employees) learning to properly plan tasks, including prioritising them without constant supervision and approval of the manager.

Of course, not every job or company can afford such a solution due to the specific nature of their industry or position. Not all of them should, anyway. Remote working is a great solution for companies employing programmers, recruiters and creative professionals who can perform their duties from anywhere in the world. This will not be possible (at least not until artificial intelligence takes control over most areas of our lives) for employees working in direct customer service (hairdressers, waiters, receptionists) or those operating machinery and equipment (machine operators, drivers, construction workers).

While implementing the concept of remote working in their organisation, every entrepreneur should consider the pros and cons accompanying this system of work. Unless forced by a situation such as the coronavirus pandemic and introduced as a temporary solution, remote working may lead to considerable savings (this is the main reason why entrepreneurs opt for such a solution), the scale of which depends on the industry, specific nature and number of employees of a given company. The cost reduction mainly applies to office space rentals as remote work means lower expenditures on furnishing the rooms, keeping them clean, paying the electricity bills, etc. If its possible to work remotely, the location of the company itself also becomes less important, since it does not influence the job candidates' decisions, and therefore the entrepreneur can rent a smaller office for cheaper rent. There is also no need to pay for parking spaces. Thanks to this solution, the entrepreneur does not have to stick to hiring employees from one region only; it does not matter whether they work from Katowice, Gdańsk, or the faraway Timbuktu. The whole world is our workplace, and this means that we can recruit specialist from anywhere in the world (as long as there is no language barrier, of course). The ability to work remotely also influences the way in which job candidates (especially the so-called millennials) view the employer; the distinguishing feature of a modern employer is no longer the employee benefits and perks, but the possibility of continuous development, a sense of doing meaningful work, and the very flexibility of working hours and place of work[5]. However, another important thing that I have already mentioned is that remote working will not find its place where there is a lack of mutual trust, and the organisation and its infrastructure have not been adapted to such changes. Let us not forget that work is not only about performing one's tasks and duties, but also about the interpersonal relationships and atmosphere which build the organisational culture of a company. In a way, remote working strips away the possibility of free interaction with other employees, which may result in a feeling of loneliness and isolation, as well as problems with motivation to perform the duties. Limited contact with the employer and colleagues also means fewer opportunities to exchange knowledge and share experiences and possible difficulties in building a sense of belonging and involvement in the work[6].

So how can we avoid the risks associated with remote working? A great responsibility rests on the shoulders of staff managers. Important factors that contribute to business continuity include cooperation and transparency, keeping in constant touch with your team, availability and efficient communication. Just because we work in different places does not mean we cannot stay in constant contact with each other, exchanging information and materials. It is extremely important to communicate clearly, to establish mutual expectations and an action plan, and to inform about any obstacles or difficulties as they emerge. Employees should feel confident that despite the distance between them and their supervisor, they can always count on them, and in return they will do their jobs well and with commitment. For many employees (but also managers), the transition to remote working, especially in the aftermath of a pandemic that has turned the lives of many of us upside down, also means great stress and fear for their future.  David Goleman's[7] research on emotional intelligence suggests that the best leaders are those who are ready to understand the emotions of others and possess very well-developed interpersonal skills. It is therefore not surprising why, in crisis situations, employees expect their guidance concerning what to do and how to act.  If a manager demonstrates helplessness, this attitude is very likely to be rub off on his or her staff (the 'trickle-down' effect). This is why it is so important for an employee doing remote work to feel that, in spite of the unusual and difficult situation, they have a supervisor who does not get discouraged by failures, manages to set a course of action for his or her team, and shows support and understanding if one of the team members stumbles.

 

 

[1] https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wojny_izraelsko-arabskie

[2] https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komputer_osobisty

[3] Nilles J. M., Telepraca. Strategie kierowania wirtualną załogą, Wydawnictwo Naukowo-Techniczne, 2003

[4] Nilles J. M., Telepraca. Strategie kierowania wirtualną załogą, Wydawnictwo Naukowo-Techniczne, 2003

[5] 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey

[6] Jeran A., Praca zdalna jako źródło problemów realizacji funkcji pracy, Opuscula Sociologica nr 2, 2016

[7] Goleman D., Inteligencja emocjonalna, Media Rodzina, 1997

Barbara Stachańczyk

Barbara Stachańczyk

Graduated in Psychology at the University of Silesia in Katowice and completed postgraduate studies in talent management in technology industry at the AGH University of Science and Technology. For the last 8 years involved in soft Human Resource Management, mainly in the scope of employee recruitment and selection processes, Assessment Center and Development Center as well as soft skills training. Working in FAMUR SA since 2017, first as a specialist and currently as a manager of Organizational Development Department. Responsible for coordinating and implementing soft Human Resource Management in the entire organisation.

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