The remote work revolution has been accelerated dramatically as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. How our work environments look in the next year remains unsettled, but some changes are already evident.
Career expert and author Rhymer Rigby, a regular contributor to FM, offers advice for workers who no longer commute to an office, wonders why video meetings now seem to be a communication default, and shares some key elements of employability for today’s professional.
What you’ll learn from this episode:
- Some of the positive effects of a dramatic increase in remote work.
- Why some people are working too much from home.
- The right and wrong ways to communicate with colleagues remotely.
- How to remain visible to your manager.
Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:
To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.
Rhymer Rigby: What we’re talking about is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the world of work, isn’t it, and how it’s changing working patterns. And what, perhaps, the short-term stuff is and what, perhaps, some of the longer-term things that are going to change when all this is over.
Neil Amato: That’s the voice of Rhymer Rigby, a name that may be familiar to readers of FM magazine. Rhymer is an author and regular contributor of popular career content in FM.
Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.
Rigby: Thank you for having me. It’s very nice to be here.
Amato: So, obviously, we are still heavily focused on the uncertainty for the future that’s created by what is somewhat in our past but also still in our present. And that’s the coronavirus pandemic. Amid all this bad news and uncertainty, what are some potential bright spots for workers?
Rigby: Well, I think one thing is that it has enormously accelerated the work-from-home trend. It’s done this in a number of ways. One is it has forced people to work from home. And so I think it’s made us realise that there are vastly more jobs that can actually be done at least partly remotely than we had previously assumed. There are a lot of roles — quite a lot of legal roles actually spring to mind — where people are like, “Well, actually I can do this at home and it’s not a problem.”
And it’s also been very good for the uptake of technology which enables this. Especially for people who have long commutes. It has perhaps been really, really good for them. And we should probably put that in the positive column. And so, if you’re someone who is — I think in the United States and the UK, we’re roughly the same. We commute for roughly 50-something minutes a day. But if you’re commuting for sort of two hours a day, you might be thinking, “Well, actually I should only work maybe two days a week in the office.” And that’s really positive. And people are — people who had long commutes, I think, are certainly reconnecting with their families, a lot less stressed, and possibly delivering better work because of that.
And then I guess there’s a whole thing — will offices be the same? And there’s a big thing here, will we be looking at companies requiring probably initially more office space because of social distancing, but then perhaps in the one- or two-year timespan less office space if, say, a third of their workforce decide they’re going to work from home? It may also have killed hot-desking dead, which I think might make a lot of people very happy.
Amato: Right. Yeah, I don’t hear a lot of positive feedback on the hot-desking trend. So if you were that at-home worker who spent 90 minutes a day getting to and from work, and now you have allegedly a free six hours a week, let’s say, what are people doing with that? Or what should they be doing with that time?
Rigby: Hopefully not working more. I think if you do have that time, I mean, number one, if you have a family. Great. Spend it with them. And actually, at the moment, with kids out of school, it’s like — a lot of people don’t have commutes, but they do have to look after their kids. My children are — now being a bit older — are less demanding. So, I guess, your hobby — what do people normally do with free time? Or perhaps exercise, if you want to get in good shape. I’ve heard a couple of people doing things like learning Danish. There’s baking bread, which seems to be — certainly in this country — one of the great lockdown pastimes and resulted briefly in flour shortages, which, you know.
So, yeah, do whatever you want to do. But don’t — perhaps don’t fill it with work, or certainly not needless work.
Amato: What about just the notion of productivity? How has the pandemic changed that?
Rigby: Well, I’ve worked from home for 20 years, and so I think it’s quite interesting. When you work from home, there’s a view that you are sort of judged on the work you produce rather than, perhaps, the time you spend in the office and the time you spend hanging around the boss. And perhaps it gets you slightly away from the notion of presenteeism, which we should probably come back to.
But I think at first, yes, it was — you just sit there and do your work. But, of course, we now have digital presenteeism via Zoom calls and that type of thing. So perhaps it hasn’t really changed all that much. And I think, initially, there probably was a period of perhaps a month where people were, as much as possible, just getting on with work, probably with far too many Zoom calls.
And office politics had disappeared, but I think office politics are probably reasserting themselves in all sorts of interesting ways. I’ve seen people doing Zoom calls where they’re also WhatsApping people in the background, and so not everyone on the call is in the WhatsApp group. So you have back channels. And I think it’s all very interesting.
So, yeah, I think, perhaps you are judged a little bit more on the work you do, but there’s also a strong element of pressing the flesh, but in a different way.
Amato: So as a veteran, a longtime work-from-home person, I’ll ask, how has it changed over the years? Did you say you’ve worked from home for 20 years?
Rigby: Yeah. Well, I mean, 20 years. OK, so I started, perhaps, around the early 2000s, so — and, well, I mean, you barely have broadband in a lot of places then. And it certainly wasn’t broadband that you could do a video call with. So, yeah, I mean, it was limited to a few industries, and I remember speaking to a guy who’d probably had done it since the ’90s. And he said it tends to be sort of knowledge work that is also piecework. So, as a journalist, copywriters, that type of thing.
But I also think, because you didn’t have any support networks, really, it tended to be limited to people who really wanted to do it and were very happy by themselves. And one thing I’ve noticed, perhaps, in recent years, is the lot of people think it’s great but then actually discover that they don’t really enjoy it very much, and they need the office, and they need to see people around them. But, yeah, I mean, hugely more people are doing it, and it is much, much easier to do because technology has got so much better.
Amato: Sure. So you make the point about people missing the office. I would say that I fit squarely in that. I’m going be fine with whatever happens long term, but I do miss being in there. Though there are some employees, some of my co-workers, and some of the people out there listening, who really enjoy being left alone, being at home. What can those people teach an extrovert like me?
Rigby: I suppose — well, I don’t really know. Can they teach you anything, because you are a different person? I think the thing you really miss in the office is sort of gossip. And I mean gossip in quite a positive sense. There’s sort of serendipitous meetings in the corridor, and — the way you sort of bump into people and you exchange information and intelligence. I think that’s incredibly valuable.
Those of us who have worked from home for a long time, I think find ways to replicate that through sort of WhatsApp groups and direct message groups, and that type of thing. But, honestly, is there a substitute for it? I don’t think there is. So if you really need that kind of human contact, then, yeah, I think you do need to go back to the office.
What can you do while you’re still away? Well, yeah. Use WhatsApp groups, and pick up the phone. Talk to people. But, of course, the thing about picking up the phone and talking to someone is you’ve made an effort and you’re stopping them from doing something. It’s not quite the same as bumping into them in the corridor and sort of saying, “Hey, how about Rhymer?” or, “Hey, how about Neil? Could you believe he did that?” And I think that is tremendously valuable, even though it can sound a bit like, as I say, gossip.
Amato: Right. And as you say, if you bump into someone and they’re getting a cup of coffee or whatever, clearly they’re not — it’s easy to tell whether they’re busy or not. That said, also at the office, you can have people constantly stopping by your desk, or your office, and that can, I guess, be less productive, too. So maybe there’s some value in some of this solitude, who knows?
Rigby: Yeah, I mean, I think absolutely. I think that’s one of the reasons why, for most people, a mixture of work — a bit of working from home is great, but working from home all the time isn’t. If you’ve got a long report to write, you absolutely want to be by yourself and you don’t want those irritating kind of interruptions. But if you have a normal working day, they’re actually pretty good, and they make you feel like part of something.
Amato: I’m suddenly drawing a blank on the expert’s name, but the video of the — I believe — the South Korea expert being interrupted by his children in the meeting? Now, that was about two years before, I guess, its time. But now it seems like that’s a common thing as so many people are working from home. How has that changed — or how has the pandemic changed kind of that expectation of no interruptions for meetings?
Rigby: I think actually because so many children have been off school, it’s just been something we’ve had to deal with. And people have actually got used to. And, actually, I think that’s a pretty good thing. You know, seeing your children bounce into the background humanises you. And it makes people realise that, yes, you do have a life outside work. You are a more rounded person.
I mean, it has had some downsides. There was the man who threw his cat. The California city official who threw his cat across the room. And I think he wound up getting sacked. And I suppose the other thing is that — and that was actually — I wrote a piece on that and it’s kind of — people do find Zoom quite exhausting, because it doesn’t quite replicate the — you don’t get all the body language cues. Being right up there in someone’s face can sort of trigger a fight-or-flight response. And on slow video, the lag can be quite disconcerting.
So I think there has to be a realisation, perhaps, that there’s nothing wrong with a normal phone call sometimes. Why have we suddenly gone to video calls? So, yeah, it’s interesting.
Amato: That’s a good point about the video calls. I think maybe it — this is just me spouting, but maybe it shows more presence or enables people to show a — some sort of professional look, as opposed to just their voice on the phone call. But the phone worked plenty of times when we were in the office talking to people who’re not with us, so.
Rigby: Well, yes, exactly. We seem to default to video calls now, and it’s — I’m kind of wondering why. Is it because you — maybe you’re right, maybe you do have to feel present. It sort of helps you. Me seeing you makes you feel like you’re there. I don’t know.
Amato: So I’ve read surveys and articles that indicate people are working too much from home. They’re losing track of their hours. What does that say to you? And maybe that’s just a US thing, I don’t know. What do you think about that?
Rigby: No, I think you’re right. It’s an everywhere thing. I’ve read about this, too. I think — initially, a lot of bosses were sort of like, “Well, Rhymer’s gonna be working from home. That means he’s gonna work less.” But actually what they’ve discovered is that people often tend to work more. And I think there’s a couple of mechanisms at work here. One is you get tied into things; you don’t have interruptions. But the other is people feel slightly guilty about working from home, and this creates a kind of a bizarre overcompensation for not being present.
And then the other thing I think you’ve got going is that, because of the pandemic, there’re a lot of people who’re very nervous about their jobs. So they are perhaps giving more than they need to.
Amato: Is it crazy to think that the momentum that was building toward a four-day workweek is possibly accelerated by the pandemic? Meaning if people are working at home and they’re working more hours, maybe they could turn those long hours into a four-day week instead?
Rigby: I don’t know. I mean, I’ve seen so many people argue that it could go to a four-day week. Nobody will want to work in the office. Or it’s actually good to go back, sort of quite similar to how it was before. And it’s really difficult to see how this is going to play out.
I think certainly it has made people aware that flexible working, in all its forms, is easier. And perhaps that is, as you say, the compressed hours thing where you do four longer days and [now you have three days off]. Or perhaps it’s simply that you were in the office all the time and now you work from home three days a week.
I think, yeah, you’re right. It has accelerated awareness of flexible working in all its forms. But what this eventually delivers, I don’t know. Your guess is probably as good as mine.
Amato: How can remote workers — we touched on this a little bit earlier, but I’ll delve into it a little bit more if you have more to say. How can remote workers be visible to their managers? It seems like colleagues they can be visible with on the WhatsApp front, but how can they be visible to their managers when they’re not seeing them for long periods of time?
Rigby: I think that’s a really good question. I mean, I think one thing is — I mean, this is a good piece of advice generally, that if you sat there and you’ve exchanged four or five emails with someone, just pick up the phone or get on a Zoom call. It’s a much — it’s much richer experience. And if I pick up the phone and talk to you, I’m probably going to have a 15-minute conversation with you that is going to go off in tangents it wouldn’t on an email, because an email is quite a sort of closed piece of communication.
So I think that is one way. I think the other way is, you sort of show visibility through your work. You flag up things you’ve done. Not in a “look at me” way, but you perhaps — you might send kind of daily or weekly reports of what you’ve done. You participate in things like Slack and that type of thing as much as possible. And you sort of participate, perhaps, in group calls. You do meetings.
And if your manager doesn’t do that, perhaps you encourage your manager to do it. You say, “Look, I need some time with you. I need to —” and, you know, just ask. Ask. Say, “Is this going OK? Am I delivering what you want?” Because I think a lot of people — and this is perhaps why they are doing too much — they’re feeling like they’re not getting any feedback. They’re sort of feeling quite isolated, and if their manager isn’t reaching out, then they need to reach out. Because managers, they shouldn’t do this but often they do. They just assume if they don’t hear from an employee then everything is fine, and often it’s not.
Amato: How has the pandemic changed the concept of employability?
Rigby: I think if you present yourself well digitally, you probably look more employable. So if you’re someone who is good on LinkedIn, depending on your industry possibly other platforms — Twitter, Instagram, Facebook — then perhaps that sort of idea that you have a digital presence. If I Google you, what do I find out? I think that is good. People who’re comfortable with working remotely. As we said, people who’re sort of proactive about communicating. Communicating digitally, communicating on a number of channels.
So I think, yeah, anyone who has good digital skills, I think, probably looks more employable. I mean, it’s been fairly — it’s still only I guess about three months, which I think means with how it pans out, I don’t really know. If we’re still sort of semi-locked down by the end of this year, it could be quite interesting [editor’s note: the interview was recorded in early July].
And I think you have all sorts of other interesting things. I mean, if you work in an office, the networks are visible. But I don’t mean to make people paranoid. There could be sort of closed — someone was talking to me the other day about dark WhatsApp groups, which are WhatsApp groups at work that just don’t include you, but perhaps are really valuable sources of information. So you have all this sort of stuff going on.
But I think it is very — it’s very early days, you know. So quite how all this pans out, I don’t really know.
Amato: Just on the overall topic of kind of career management in the middle of a pandemic, anything to add in closing?
Rigby: I guess just keep your visibility up. Do as good a job as you can. If you network, obviously this has to be done digitally. And yeah, just try really and make sure you are visible. You are speaking to people. You are communicating.
And that you are telling people about the work you’ve done, because quite often if you don’t tell people, they don’t recognise that you have done it. So you perhaps — it may feel, especially if you’re British, we don’t like to blow our own trumpets. But I think, yeah, you have to blow your own trumpet a little bit. And really embrace the full spectrum of kind of digital tools to ensure people know that you’re there and you’re working.
Amato: Rhymer, thank you very much.
Rigby: Thank you very much. Great to talk.