How to Work Remotely

Welcome to the Global Plague of 2020, courtesy of COVID-19. The world has not seen something like this in a century, even the polio, cholera, and various influenzas that have struck since then haven’t created the worldwide need for isolation and restriction that we’re currently seeing.

One major kink in all that is the need for businesses to, somehow, keep operating. Everyone is worried about the effects to the economy, a faceless pseudo-entity that doesn’t provide anything more than an indicator of wealth, forcing businesses to attempt to remain operating, potentially affecting (and infecting) the very employees upon whom they rely to make the business operate.

The COVID-19 epidemic comes at a watershed point in human history. Never before in our developed world (I count the planet, here, not specific countries) have we had the capacity to conduct our operations apart from one another at scale. We have the technology to continue … but there’s a little more to it than that.

A decade ago, I worked at a small agency in downtown Calgary. We had a couple dozen people, all of whom worked on laptops. The laptops connected to Wifi — we had no network cables beyond Wifi hubs connecting to simple switches, which connected to the internet — and not a single server in sight. All of our “infrastructure” was virtual, stored with vendors in who-knew-where. And, to a degree, we didn’t care.

This was (and still is) the “cloud”: vendors who provide infrastructure, platforms, and software services over the internet. You effectively “lease” the use of these systems without having to directly invest in it yourself.

A decade ago, this worked well for smaller businesses that had lighter needs. Those of us who weren’t too concerned about high levels of security to protect intellectual property or high-risk data assets, who didn’t need to worry about stringent compliance with standards bodies, or otherwise simply didn’t have the desire for maintaining their own iron, could do so with the drop of a credit card and ten minutes’ work. Google Apps (now G Suite), Rackspace, Digital Ocean, and a litany of smaller services were readily available and could be quickly thrown to use. (Whether we did it well or not, that’s another matter.)

In the decade since, we have had a tremendous improvement and maturity in the cloud. Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, SAP, Salesforce, Apple, and more smaller niche vendors than you could reasonably count all now provide almost the entire breadth and depth of traditional IT services from the comfort of your home office, with the power of large corporate data centres.

But.

It isn’t as easy as plunking down a credit card and pressing a few buttons. Although cloud services definitely provide the utility, the complexity of these systems remains fairly high, and you will still require those with the knowledge and experience to properly weave them together into a cohesive and functional system. The benefits once this is done, however, are tremendous.

I currently work at a Crown Corporation (a government-owned agency) of the Government of Alberta. My predecessors had the foresight to see this cloud transformation taking place and went to considerable lengths to prepare for it. While it wasn’t entirely in place by the time I took over, the foundations were certainly solid enough for the process to be completed. And when it came time for us to effectively evacuate from our office to work from home, the process was little more than “take a laptop and a monitor and go home”. For everyone, including our receptionist!

We’re ahead of most curves. Allow me to show you what our infrastructure looks like:

  • Microsoft 365
    This is the core of our productivity and communications. Microsoft’s ability to supply these services at the level they do with assurance and support is, in my opinion, unparalleled. If you subscribe to M365, you will come to understand that there is no one single vendor that can do this as effectively.
    • Office 365 for email, documentation, financial analysis (Excel, specifically), telephony (yes, Office 365 does your phone system!), virtual meetings, document management (the much-loathed but highly functional Sharepoint, in its OneDrive manifestation) that also handles a lot of our collaboration
    • Windows 10 for our workstation operating systems
    • Security (Microsoft’s security is highly impressive for its expanse and integration)
    • Dynamics (our financial system, for processing)
    • Azure (our infrastructure is largely virtualized and operates in the cloud), which runs our corporate systems (such as identity) as well as our web systems
  • ADP Workforce Now
    This is our HRIS, including payroll. We never need to be in the office for this to work.
  • A small army of other services to address business-specific functions, none of which reside on any server we operate

That seems too simple, right? We’re too simple an organization? To a degree, that’s correct. We’re not in manufacturing or logistics or retail sales, so we don’t have anything physical; nor are we in a service industry like healthcare (particularly crucial in our current pandemic) where the specialists must be at work, or people die. I argue that a large majority of traditional white-collar environments that largely employ “knowledge workers” (who use computers to fulfill their role requirements) have very similar alignments and could transform. I could go into detail about this and provide examples and suggestions, but I argue there’s already a dozen really good articles out there readily google-able that will tell you the same thing, so there’s no value in reproducing that here.

So how can your business transform? You’ll need three things:

Technology

This is Step 1 for a reason: without solving the things we’ve talked about above, you won’t get to the next parts. If you can’t function (roughly) equivalently outside of the office as you do in the office, then you’ve got more work ahead of you. Technology is an obtuse, intangible beast that requires experienced people to tackle and tame, so consider one of many skilled vendors out there can who help you transform rapidly.

If you have solved this, if you’ve removed your physical office as a dependency for operations, then you can work anywhere. Your ability to work from a beach in Thailand should be your test case in this scenario.

Dedication

Let’s talk about that Thai beach.

You’re dedicated to your task often by merely being in the office. “Going to the office” and “being at work” creates a mindset you’re often not even aware of, but you know it’s there: you’re “at work”. It’s more than just a statement, it’s a way of thinking and acting. You are probably only vaguely aware of it, but your actions and behaviour at work are not the same as when you’re at home — after all, we do talk about unwinding when you go through your front door.

Working remotely challenges this mindset. When you’re somewhere else, you’re not “at work”, you’re “working from a coffee shop” or “offsite”, which is a different frame of context. As anyone who has tried to work from a coffee shop will tell you, this is not easily done without a lot of practice — the distractions from strangers around you can be considerable.

Worse still is “working from home”. Home is where the heart is, and the sweatpants, the TV playing in the background, the endless array of snacks, and if you’re like me: kids. When you’re “at home”, you’re usually “not working”. Like with coffee shops, working from home requires a unique mindset to ensure that you’re focusing on the efforts at hand, not on whatever is going down on the reality show of the day.

You’ll need to put some extra focus on your dedication. Often the best way to do this is separating your “work” space from your “home” space — a separate room, a special chair, anything that delineates your “work” space and helps focus. You’ll also need to ensure that you set very specific ground rules with anyone else inhabiting your home: when you’re “working”, you’re not playing, or cleaning, or cooking. That’s not to say you can’t take a break for a while and do those things, but never at the same time. You need to focus.

Engagement

Working at an office is more than productivity, it’s social. You have coworkers, you have team members, you have a number of people that you’ll interact with on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter whether or not you like an individual, that you have social interaction is the important part, a huge piece of being human. Even introverts benefit from (limited) engagement, as it does provide that support for our human psyche.

Of the three success factors in this article (Technology, Dedication, and Engagement), this is the most difficult. Working from home — or that beach in Thailand — still requires a similar engagement to the one you experience when in a physical office. Not with anyone else who lives in your home — unless you both work for the same organization, you don’t have the same “at work” mindset — but with those whom you interact with while “at work”. Ever heard of the “Work Husband” or “Work Wife”? You have to keep up those relationship as much as you do the ones in your home.

Stay Healthy

We talk about the current COVID-19 pandemic as if it is new, as if it’s never happened before. History repeats itself, in different ways, and our world has seen many epidemics and pandemics. How we act in this one will be different, though there are some very prudent commonalities: social distancing, regularly (and proper!) cleansing, and mental stimulation to keep us going. No pandemic has been so complete that it has isolated us from the world for a long period of time; this too shall pass.

Stay home, and wash your hands frequently!

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