How millennials are driving a remote working revolution

18 May 2015 -


A tech-savvy generation of younger employees is reshaping the way we do our jobs, according to a recent book

Jermaine Haughton

Many managers in the UK will no doubt be quaking at the thought of the country’s first national rail strike since 1994 – scheduled by the RMT union to play out for 24 hours from 5pm on Monday 25 May. Firms of all sizes will be forced to find inventive ways of limiting the disruption to their patterns of business, and remote working is sure to be top of the list.

CMI chief executive Ann Francke warns that employers must start organising their strategies immediately to prevent the strike from causing serious financial damage. “News of potential rail disruptions in the UK when workforces return after the Bank Holiday will alarm many businesses,” she said. “The message is clear – your business will cope better and recover from disruption faster if you plan ahead. Managers that don’t will be left counting the cost in lost business, lack of staff and a post-holiday headache.

“With the imminent rail strikes scheduled, businesses need to prepare for this now and take any necessary steps – make sure staff are aware and can look at alternative commutes, be flexible with work hours or put measures in place so staff can work remotely if needed.”

Compared to the last national rail strike two decades ago, businesses will be far more savvy about how to avert problems, thanks to the emergence of Generation Y in the workplace. Indeed, the recent book Remote: Office not Required, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson – co-founders of the dynamic software company 37Signals – tipped Gen-Y influence to reshape the working environment around a home-working model: “The future, quite literally, belongs to those who get it ... Do you think today’s teenagers, raised on Facebook and texting, will be sentimental about the old days of all-hands-on-deck, Monday morning meetings? Ha.”

As explained in the book and other sources, here are four ways to create an effective remote working experience…

1. Bust the face-to-face myth

Regular sit-down meetings are unnecessary, according to Fried, and actually hinder productivity. Much less frequent face-to-face chats, therefore, are a lot more rewarding. “This is why at 37Signals we don’t meet in person all that often,” he wrote. “Our attitude is, we need a clean plate before going up for seconds. Only about three times a year does the whole company get together in the Chicago office. And even that can be a tad too frequent if our goal is to really blow it out on the free-riff idea ramp!” Technology, he added, is key: “you’d be amazed how much quality collective thought can be captured using two simple tools: a voice connection and a shared screen. Every time we use something like WebEx, we’re surprised at how effective it is. No, it’s not 100% as effective – it lacks that last 1% or 2% of high-fidelity interaction – but it’s much closer than you’d think.” (Source)

Another tool that has become a mainstay for remote-working employees is GoToMeeting from Citrix – a platform that enables remote staff to keep on the same page through video conferencing and walk each other through software demos and fixes. It is also a popular venue for webinars.

2. Account for hard work

As managers aren’t sitting across from their workers anymore, Fried wrote, they “can’t look in the person’s eyes and see burnout. That's why managers need to establish a culture of reasonable expectations. One way to help set a heathy boundary is to encourage employees to think in terms of ‘a good day's work’. Look at your progress at the end of the day and ask yourself: ‘Have I done a good day's work?’ It feels good to be productive. If yesterday was a good day’s work, chances are you’ll stay on a roll.” That combination of expectations management and self-starter productivity makes for a strong culture of accountability.

3. Get out of the cabin

Fried notes that poorly managed remote working can tap into bad work habits from our university days – such as starting an essay less than 24 hours before the deadline and bunkering down until it’s finished. And constant interaction with “electronic peers” on platforms such as Gmail, Campfire and Reddit can also be a disincentive to getting up and moving around.

With that potential for “cabin fever” in mind, Fried suggests that using home working as a means of hanging out with your loved ones will help you to avoid a critical mass of feeling cooped up. “But even if you don’t have friends or family nearby,” he stressed, “you can still make it work; you’ll just have to exert a little more effort. For example, find a co-working facility and share desks with others in your situation. Such facilities can now be found in most larger cities, and even some smaller ones. Another idea is to occasionally wander out into the real world. Every city, no matter how small, offers social activities to keep you sane and human, whether it’s playing chess in the park, finding a pickup basketball game, or volunteering at a school or library on your lunch break.” (Source)

4. Support personal development plans

While remote working is tipped to lessen the frequency of performance reviews and other forms of feedback, that doesn’t mean managers should fall asleep at the wheel. They just need to rethink how they train their staff. Bestselling David and Goliath author Malcolm Gladwell says that millennials are more drawn to “the network” than “the hierarchy”. Rather than being consumed by job titles and salaries, they are focused on challenging projects – but still enjoy collaborating with managers who they feel support them through training and development. In that sense, remote working is geared towards preparing employees for the handover of specific projects or technical tasks, rather than the traditional climb up the “command and control” ladder. (Source)

In its 2013 report Weathering the Storm, CMI explained how remote working can be used as a key part of Business Continuity Management (BCM): a set of contingencies that can help companies work through potentially chaotic events, such as outbreaks of bad weather – or even industrial action, the like of which has been planned by the RMT. The report advised: “Be clear about management roles and responsibilities. Senior managers must take ultimate responsibility for BCM, and communicate the organisation’s approach through channels such as the directors’ annual business review. Line managers must also be clear about their responsibilities and given information or training where needed.”

To find out more about BCM, download CMI’s Weathering the Storm.

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