Does remote working create an empathy gap?

Remote working
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Francois Badenhorst
Deputy editor
BusinessZone and UK Business Forums
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Back in 2013, Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer sent out a diktat: all remote workers, she said, needed to start working at Yahoo HQ -- or if they didn’t want to, they should quit.

Mayer’s decision caused quite the stir in the press: by 2013, remote working had become an established, lucrative perk. But Mayer felt it had gone too far. Speaking through her erstwhile HR director Jacqueline Reeses, Mayer told her employees: “Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.”

Mayer was one of a few high profile cases of companies ending remote work. IBM, a company that pioneered remote working, ended its policy a few years ago. But despite these prominent examples, remote working’s momentum hasn’t abated.

Remote working may help you strike things off your to-do list - but it doesn’t benefit the whole organisation.

In the UK, an Office for National Statistics (ONS) statistic from 2015 showed that 13.7% of British workers worked from home. Another piece of YouGov research found that found that 54% of UK office workers are currently able to work remotely. It seems like, despite Mayer and IBM’s high profile repudiation of the concept, remote working remains popular.

But as remote working has become a staple, some problems have started to emerge. Elastic is a software company with no HQ. The company is completely remote, with workers across the world. Reflecting on the challenges of running a business like this, Elastic’s CEO told Quartz: “When employees don’t know each other, and their only interactions are via email, text, or messaging services like Slack, disputes can blow up very quickly.”

Elastic’s experience closely matches the experiences of Chris Platts, founder of Thrivemap, a software that helps with the recruiting process. Wearied by long commutes, the startup experimented with one week in, one-week remote. It didn’t work.

“Remote working can work for some teams but for us, we found it just doesn't, we need to be in close proximity especially when every day it feels like we're making business-critical decisions,” Platts tells BusinessZone. “With distance, it became much harder to grasp where someone’s opinion was coming from because we just weren't experiencing the same things.”

Practically, the alternative to working face-to-face is using video. But Platts says video cannot emulate the natural meander of a creative conversation. “You don’t pick up on the micro-communications, to build empathy and to build trust.”

Then there’s the issue of proximity. Not literally being physically close -- but those incidental conversations; “water cooler experiences”, as Platts phrases it. “Those incidental experiences disappear when you’re not together. You miss out on so many ideas when you don’t have that proximity.”

Platts admits, though, that what doesn’t work for him and Thrivemap, might work for another business. Hawthorn, a London based clothing manufacturer, has blossomed as a decentralised business.

Incidental experiences disappear when you’re not together. You miss out on so many ideas when you don’t have that proximity.

Hawthorn’s USP is that it deals with smaller clothing brands and startups. “We are able to do the lowest minimum order quantities for fully custom clothing,” explains Rob Williams, co-director and head of logistics at Hawthorn. “If you’re a small brand, and you’re looking to startup. We can go as low as fifty.”

Hawthorn’s factory is based in Istanbul, Turkey (a country with a long and proud tradition in textiles). The company has also recently expanded into Pakistan. Not only is the team in the UK frequently working out-of-office (meeting clients, working from home), but it has 23 permanent employees based overseas.

For Williams, it works well. With the only negative being if a client gets in touch at the last minute and asks for a meeting. “We have quite a few enquiries come through say ‘oh, I’m 5 minutes away from your office can I come in from a meeting’. So that’s the only way it affects us.”

As for the Turkish operation, Williams is also satisfied with how things are ticking along. “We go over to Turkey every few months. We have some very good facility managers over there and that has been critical,” says Williams. “We have a bi-weekly meeting with our managers over there. We’re in constant contact over phone, email, WhatsApp.

“We’re lucky, too. If we had been born twenty years earlier, it might have been a different story. The age that we live in has enabled us to work this way: mobile phones, the internet and constantly being connected.” But then comes another challenge: “It can be a curse. Sometimes you want to switch off and emails are coming in at 1 AM.” 

It returns to Platts’s (and Mayer’s and IBM’s) point, however: any application of remote working should be carefully monitored to check whether it suits the business. As Platts says, remote working enables you to be more productive on individual tasks by working remotely. There’s undoubtedly less distraction.

If we had been born twenty years earlier, it might have been a different story. The age that we live in has enabled us to work this way: mobile phones, the internet and constantly being connected.

“The default for people is to say ‘I’m more productive at home’. But that doesn’t necessarily benefit the company. It may help you strike things off your to-do list - but it doesn’t benefit the whole organisation. Despite what you gain in personal productivity, I feel we lose an environment where there’s empathy between us.

“People are different and people like to work differently. That’s lost when you’re remote. You don’t pick up on nuances like how someone thinks or works, or how they like to be rewarded or recognised. So because those interactions are lost we put ourselves in positions that are counter productive. You’re like a bull in a china shop, trying to impose your way of working on others -- unless you understand everyone is different.”
 

About Francois

About Francois

Francois is the deputy editor of BusinessZone and UK Business Forums.

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