Project Management in Science
Imagine you are decorating a room. There is large sofa, and you have some throw pillows decorating it, but it looks a little bare, so you get some more. And some more. And some more. How many is too many? 5? 20? 65? Like cupcakes or party invitations, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. This applies to collaborative teams as well.
I was hoping this article would at last be one that presented a solution to the issue of having employees and team members work remotely - i.e. at home. Unfortunately, it presents the same tired arguments with little in the way of creative answers. And that's too bad, because I think there are ways to make remote work feasible and effective. First, let's look at the four arguments:
Economic argument: office space is expensive, so having employees work remotely is cheaper. And clearing the roads of commuters is better for the environment.
I’m not able to do any economic analysis on this, but I would estimate that the cost argument is incorrect.
As for the environment piece, this is likely true. People not needing to commute will mean fewer cars on the road (and likely fewer car owners) and a reduction in the individual stress that comes from commuting. This latter piece does need to be balanced with the commensurate other stresses a home-office environment introduces (see work-life balance below).
Team work argument: collaboration and team work happen when people are comfortable, so letting them work remotely frees them to be more independent and actively seek out collaborative opportunities.
In my experience, the co-location of staff is one of the main factors in building team camaraderie and facilitating collaborative work. While independence and collaboration are not mutually exclusive, they certainly are counter-intuitive. When you are part of a team (or department or organization – whatever the group of people working with a shared vision is referred to in your world), being and feeling a part of that team is essential for effective communication, collaboration and productivity. Remote or virtual teams are inherently challenging because of that lack of face-time with colleagues. These can be somewhat overcome with technology tools such as Slack, Zoom, and other collaborative tools. But virtual teams are challenging because you CAN’T have people co-located. So introducing that challenge or complexity deliberately to a team that could in fact be co-located, is counter-productive.
Trust argument: leaders are afraid that employees working remotely will not get their work done. They fear a lack of control over what employees are doing will mean failures in productivity. They do not trust people that they cannot directly supervise.
This is a sweeping us-vs-them statement that reflects the poor leadership in place in some organizations. But it’s about as valid as “all employees will abuse the privilege of working remotely.” To some extent, leaders are right to have this fear. They will ultimately be accountable for the output of the team, so they should have control over where and how the work is done in a way that allows them to assure the quality and timeliness of the products.
This argument works just as well from the point of view of the employee, arguing against the remote work concept: good, supportive leadership means that it is easily accessible to me. Therefore, I want to be near to my leader, so I can get answers to questions, highlight my accomplishments, and be accessible for opportunities when they arise. If my leader can’t see me, they may not know about my achievements and skills and I may miss chances for development and advancement.
Trust is a two-way street and is required from both leaders and teams if a remote work arrangement is going to work. And especially if the next argument is to work.
Work-life balance argument: employees who work from home have a better balance, as they get to schedule and plan their work around their own styles and the demands of their life.
This sounds idyllic, but as anyone who does work remotely even part of the time will likely tell you, having your work omnipresent in your home can make this worse instead of better. One work-life balance benefit to having a separate workplace outside the home IS the physical division between work and home. For most office-type workers these days, work already intrudes into home life via mobile devices and the “benefit” of being able to VPN into the office at any time of the day or night. The balance is achievable, but with a home-based work environment it requires much more discipline to maintain that balance since the division between the two is now virtual. There is a cynical perspective that might argue that employers would LOVE it if everyone worked from home, because for the most part they’d be working all the time. So, working from home or otherwise remotely can more correctly be seen as one tool to achieving work-life balance, but it is not the panacea of balance that is imagined.
So, what might work? As with most things, the “it depends” principle applies. There is no absolute, one-size-fits-all solution, for employers, employees or work requirements. I recommend a hybrid approach, where working remotely sometimes (not always) is an option (not a requirement) for some (not all) team members.
When working remotely is done nearly 100% of the time, then a measure of an employee’s “work” – i.e. the way in which the company measures what and how they get paid – cannot continue to be just in hours. After all, one of the benefits of working remotely is that the specific hours worked matter less than the actual work accomplished. Timesheets and standard measures and reporting have to be replaced by review and confirmation of work to milestones, essentially making the measurements about pieces of work instead of time. This has the risk of turning employees into contractors (both legally and practically) and undermining the connection and engagement of employees with and to the organization and team.
It also requires a lot more time and judgement by leaders and supervisors to review and approve work in ways that directly affect if/how employees get paid. Most leaders consider overall performance across the year, rather than piecemeal evaluations. And so this new approach a) requires more time (and so more cost to the organization) and b) shifts the power balance in the relationship, something neither the leader or the employee anticipated or is trained for. Having remote work as an option for use when appropriate and effective (as determined by both employee and leader), can provide that desired flexibility while maintaining engagement.
Not all employees can or will thrive in a remote work set-up. In fact, some will loathe it, and may become more anxious and disengaged because of that lack of contact with their colleagues. When you consider that not all employees have the same work styles, it should be obvious that the more social ones will find that being removed from their colleagues is unsatisfying and unproductive. Also, not everyone is as adept at maintaining the balance between work and home, and so the requirement to work from home may be more oppressive than liberating. Having remote work as an option rather than a requirement means it can be use by those for whom it can be effective without undermining the confidence and security of those who prefer the community of the office space.
As described above, sometimes leaders have a legitimate concern about how productive a specific individual will be when working remotely. Let’s face it – not everyone has the integrity or commitment necessary to work unsupervised, and good leaders know both how to manage all team members effectively, including those with challenging work habits; when those team members have critical skills and abilities but also challenging work habits, good leaders need to have the flexibility and latitude (and fortitude) to manage the work environments such that everyone has the best opportunity to contribute productively and effectively. Remote work is not suitable for everyone, or for every type of work and working, and leaders need to be able to use remote work as a tool selectively and appropriately.
This means that a hybrid model is most effective – where remote work is supported and enabled, but not required. In my experience, this works very effectively to allow for employees to apply this tool when it makes sense. It allows them to contribute to their work-life balance by enabling them to be home for the business of life while maintaining progress and contributions to their work. It empowers them to create effective work time and space, such when the work requires a few hours of focus and concentration that is unlikely to be realized in the office. And it contributes to confidence, security and trust from both leader and employee that this tool is made available to them when and how the employee chooses it.
As an employee and a leader, I greatly value the opportunities that remote work options enable for me. I also recognize the inherent challenges and risk - for me, my teams and my employer - and so I treat the option respectfully, and work hard to bring balance to privilege and opportunity afforded by this option. I would not want it to become mandatory, for me or anyone else, and indeed I do not require it (establishing remote access) for anyone in my teams, but where desired and appropriate for an individual, I am supporting and supportive of it.
It is a fact in this day and age that team members – project managers and other professionals in “middle” management – are expected to maintain a virtual connection to the office outside of work hours. The advances of mobile technology intrude on our leisure time by creating an expectation/requirement that employees be available day and night. Leaders and organizations need to balance taking that next step – remote work options and expectations – carefully to ensure that employees can be productive and balanced in their lives. Applying a hybrid approach, where remote work is a tool with options and privilege, can help achieve that.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.