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Remote Work Problems Aren’t Related to Remote at All

4 minutes
August 30, 2019

No problems are specific to remote work. Every time someone claims “this is a problem with remote work”, it is wrong. All the problems you have in a remote work environment, you actually have them in an office environment too. ALL of them!

There are two main reasons why people think some problems are specific to remote work environment :

  1. They confuse symptoms for problems;
  2. They are blind to the fact that the problem is present in the office environment too.

Confusing symptoms for problems

Confusing symptoms for problems happens frequently, in every sphere of activities. If you see something wrong, that’s a symptom. To find the root cause, the underlying issue, the real problem, you need to spend time, investigate, think about it. As a general rule, a single problem can manifest through multiple different symptoms, simultaneously or not. Symptoms for the same problem and also be different, varying based on environment conditions, people involved, culture, etc.

You can’t solve a problem by fixing the symptoms. At best, you can mask a problem, reduce the symptoms enough to tolerate the problem. This can work for some time, but since symptoms varies, you should expect to see new symptoms appears over time for the same problem.

If you want to solve a problem, you can’t do that by fixing symptoms. You have to work on the problem itself. Once the problem is solved, the resulting symptoms won’t exist anymore either. More importantly, they won’t come back (since the problem is solved for good).

For example, “people are showing late for work” is not a problem, it’s a symptom. The problem could be a lack of interest about the work, not knowing what are the expectation around “being in office” hours, not being able to come in early because of traffic or having to drop kids at school, etc. Without digging deeper into the situation, you won’t know what the real problem is. If you think you’re solving the problem by having a mandatory meeting early in the day, well, you’re not. An early meeting won’t increase interest about work, won’t clarify what the expectations are, won’t help with traffic, and won’t have the school open sooner.

It is faster/cheaper/easier to act on symptoms. It gives the impression of doing something to fix the problem. It gives the impression of being in control and doing a good job. That’s why we frequently see this happening. Consciously or not, people will fix symptoms instead of working on the underlying problem.

Blind to the problems

When you are in an office environment, many problems can go unseen. Since you have everybody in the office, the fact that people are physically present blind you of many problems. It can also give you false confidence about many aspects of work culture, which means you don’t even think about those topics, which means you have no way of even considering that there could be a problem in the first place.

The easiest example for this is that many will equate presence in office with productivity. So if productivity isn’t enough, the number one solution is to ask people to spend more time in the office (extended hours, no outside lunch, etc.). But slacking in office is an art and many people are good at it. Just because someone is in the office doesn’t mean he’s working anyway. So there was and still is a productivity problem (which is likely caused by something else, as discussed above), but many won’t see it because… people are in office 10 hours a day! There’s just too much work! Not enough resources! But if people were working remotely, the same productivity problem would likely been seen way sooner (before it gets too problematic), as you’d be paying much more attention to this, instead of equating physical presence with productivity.

Basically, everything you make mandatory has a high chance of rendering you blind to some potential problems. When it isn’t mandatory, you see what doesn’t work right away because nothing is happening. Or people will let you know about the problems because they’ll see them. When something is mandatory, well, people do it. So any problems that would cause people do NOT do it won’t be apparent (but still exist and cause other issues). Since mandating time in office is a big requirement, this has a significant clout and can mask many problems.

Conclusion

Like everything, there’s always exceptions so yes, there are some challenges that are unique to remote environments, but they are small, not that important. The big stuff you have to care about, the problems that can ripples in the organisation and wreak havoc, those problems aren’t related to the work environment itself. As such, in office or remote, doesn’t make a difference.

Originally published on Medium