Remote work: a soloist’s paradise, a team player’s hell

Remote work: a soloist’s paradise, a team player’s hell.

While remote work often favors short-term productivity, long-term focus may suffer with the decline in exchange of ideas.

“We assumed that it would become a full-on financial horror,” says Mikko Kuitunen, the founder and long-term CEO of Vincit, a Finnish software company. These were the words he used when describing his company’s experiences during the first days of COVID in the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat (Sorry, in Finnish but perhaps try Google Translate…).

Just like with other companies, as soon as Vincit’s workers retired to remote work, their daily trips to work ended. As the weeks passed, so did many other things that had been part of the company’s daily life. There were almost no sick leaves, no time-consuming meetings. Nobody was standing by a colleague’s workstation with a coffee cup in hand, nor attending recreation days, joint lunches or summer parties.

The COVID of surprises

This all seemed to be the end of the world for Kuitunen and it came quickly as a surprise. But equally big was his surprise when, a few months later, he looked at the company’s results.

The company’s billable hours had grown from pre-COVID days. “There were a lot of them, a lot of them. Enough to cancel out all the other side effects of the corona.”

Also, the number of employees had grown to about six percent more than before, to 343. Turnover increased by 16.6 percent from the previous year.

From short-term productivity boost to long-term decline

However, there was another development going on in the meantime. While the productivity increased on the individual workers’ level, it started to gradually decline on the company level.

“Remote work doesn’t encourage people to think about other people,” he says. “Just to complete their personal to-do lists. They’re done, that’s it.”

In the short term, this way of doing work is extremely efficient and productive, Kuitunen says.

However, the world is changing all the time. If employees are left to run their own to-do lists, the necessary change will not happen in companies. They will not adapt to the changes in their environment.

Complex, vital tasks suffer from remote work

Tremendously important things are done in the workplace that cannot be broken down into individual tasks. Thus, they will not get done remotely and the people who would do them will not be rewarded.

The main reason for this is the complexity of these tasks.

Aside of anticipating and strategically planning future, one such thing is helping a co-worker spontaneously. In remote working, it mainly becomes a slowdown in your own to-do list.

As Kuitunen also points out, there are a lot of quiet workhorses who add value to their environment in many ways. Crucially, these people think about the big picture and the company’s benefit rather than their own. They are even harder to identify in the remote world. Only a few of them stand out.

Fact: remote work harms collaboration

One may agree or disagree with Kuitunen on the scale of these problems. After all, Kuitunen points out even himself that their real-life impact is impossible to measure.

However, one would think that some of the work that has significance to the productivity of a company will suffer. The notion that this applies especially to work that requires collaboration and swarm intelligence rings true.

This is backed up by a number of studies. Recently Microsoft, for example, found that remote work decreases cross-group collaboration by around 25% compared to on-premises.

Can technology help fix what it broke? And how much?

Here at Documill, one thing that puzzles us is, what can the most recent technology innovations do to help organizations to create stronger social bonds? To bring people closer so they can easily help each other? To enable them to exchange perceptions about how the world is changing and how to change their focus accordingly?

For one thing, if remote work is here to stay like anticipated, something will be lost forever. We are social beings who have thrived through history mainly because of our capability to co-operate in herds – ones connected in the same physical space.

But then, can technology compensate for something that we are losing?

Bringing collaborators together with automated workflows

One solution that comes to mind is automated workflows that can help in a couple of ways. They can connect individuals to work seamlessly together on projects.

One common use case that our solution enables is collaboration on B2B sales contracts that require many participants. This solution allows people to work together seamlessly online, right in the cloud – within the Salesforce platform, regardless of their physical location.

Here is how it works: one participant can upload an initial contract draft to customer relationship management (CRM) software like Salesforce. Then he or she can create a no-code workflow (or choose a ready-made one) that brings in all participants needed to the project.

From then on, the contract draft will pass automatically from one contributor to another in a set order. One collaborator can add the pricing information, another the delivery conditions, yet another can look at the additional services that need to be included.

When one step is clicked as complete, the contract moves automatically to the next contributor. The workflow can then forward the contract on to negotiations with the customers and finally, it can fetch the required approvals and e-signatures from the directors.

Room for collaboration, little favors – and exchange of thoughts

What is vital here is that while people are working on the contract, they can also exchange messages freely in the context of the document, as internal comments. In addition, integrated messaging channels like Slack are also used. These allow general discussions, sharing ideas and asking for favors informally.

As the solution comes with an intuitive user interface, anybody – not just developers – can easily create and tailor workflows to connect different individuals, depending on the requirements of each project.

The important thing is, however, that collaboration no longer happens just depending on the workers’ willingness or effort but because they are encouraged, even bound to embark on it.

More transparency for better understanding

There is also another benefit from workflows like these: they give transparency and oversight to the collaboration process. Project dashboards and logs can give both managers and workers a better idea of what is really happening when they are working together – and how it can be done even better. Problems can be spotted and corrected more easily.

Indeed, a Harvard Business Review recently found that no less than 40% of managers struggled managing workers remotely. Customized and automated workflows can help narrow the distance between managers and workers. They can help all collaborators share experiences, findings and thoughts that arise from them.


…But by no means a complete solution

However, even though clearly defined workflows can bring individuals better together, they are by no means a full-on solution to tackle complex, often organizational discussions.

What is left for managers to do is to encourage and enable workers to pull together and share their thoughts.

Ways to do this are no doubt explored in offices all around the world. Virtual events are an obvious answer to sharing ideas and communicating experiences. So are specific time slots in formal meetings reserved just for informal discussion. The morningly scrum meetings of agile software development teams, for instance, can easily give room for these. And yes, scrum-like practices can be easily applied to all kinds of teamwork.

On the workers’ side, collaborative skills can be expected to have a more important role for many in their skillsets.

But overall, it looks worth our while to take a long hard look at the collaboration practices we have, right away.

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