Remote work is the easy option, but it’s not the better one, says Yellowfin’s Tony Prysten

Tony Prysten

Yellowfin general manager of design and digital Tony Prysten. Source: supplied.

Firstly, I should start with a disclaimer. These are my views and not the views of my employer. Also, my background is agency and software — which is known for having a progressive, highly collaborative, fast-paced and iterative work culture.

Ironically, our new office was just shortlisted for ‘Best workspace under 1000sqm’ in the 2020 Workspace Office Awards.

This is ironic because we took possession over nine months ago, literally on the Monday we were instructed to commence working from home, and until last week, not one of our 70-plus Melbourne team had spent a single day in the rather beautiful space.

And now, as we creep, or are coaxed, out from the safety, convenience and security of our homes, a debate is raging. Should we go back to working in an office, work from home, or find a balance somewhere in between? And then, what is this balance? One, two, three or four days in the office or at home? 

A recent survey of our own team revealed how divided people are on the subject. Over one-third are very keen to return, a similar number are not keen, and the remainder are on the fence. 

Just to get it out there, I am one ready to get back. And I have been back. Back to my new normal, which is my old normal, which is about one day working from home. 

The reasons for not returning were pretty consistent. Travel time, more time for self and family, flexibility and work-life balance. And did I say travel time? Yes, these are some pretty strong reasons for people to feel that working from home is the way forward.

And the reasons to return (or things people missed) covered themes such as social interaction, belonging, informal conversation and meetings, human connection, learning, more effective interaction… the list went on and on.

In fact, the list of things people missed was longer and far more in-depth than the reasons for not returning.

It’s my belief that the things we are missing far outweigh the reasons to not return.

As humans (and even as introverts) we crave human connection. Real, old-school, face-to-face human connection.

We generally want to belong and be part of the tribe. Honestly, I went to a pretty dark place towards the end of our extended Melbourne lockdown, and I think a lot of this was a result of not being around people. As soon as I was back in a room with my team, this lifted.

I was surprised by the reasons given to not return.

Most of our team, including the CEO and CTO, worked from home at least one day a week before COVID-19.

We are measured by results and quality of output, not time at a desk, and there has never been an expectation to work unreasonable hours. Most of the office is out the door by 5.30pm.

If you are struggling to achieve a work-life balance, flexibility and even some autonomy, then maybe you need to consider who you work for. Or if you need to work for yourself.

So, why are we really so hesitant?

I have two early highschool kids who were jumping to get back to school. They wanted to be around people. They were done with video calls. And they were well aware they probably got more work done at home, meaning they had less homework.

So is it that it is easier, but maybe not necessarily better? It’s easier to not get dressed till later. To sleep in. To not have to plan exercise or school pickups. To switch your camera off. To be on mute.

Do you remember the things that, pre-COVID-19, attracted you to work for a particular organisation?

I do. It was the culture, opportunity, people, collaborative environment and a flat structure. A place where everyone, no matter who they are, is expected to contribute to decisions, take ownership, and to be part of something great.

Our company has worked really hard for a long time to create this culture. And it’s a culture I believe relies on people being in the same room together. To bump into each other and to grab a pho together. At least, a good portion of the time. And COVID-19 won’t change this.

I know people will argue this.

Big tech companies such as Atlassian and Facebook say they are never returning to their pre-COVID-19 ways of working.

Only time will tell if the quality and innovation of their products decline and if the long-term wellbeing of their people is negatively affected.

And only time will tell if people feel part of a company or just become a number on a Jira ticket, if juniors will learn and grow, or if more senior people can lead, manage and mentor.

That’s a lot of ‘ifs’.

The thing is, working from home worked for everyone when everyone was working from home.

Zoom works when everyone is remote, but I am not so sure it will hold up when only half a team is in a room together.

In fact, I know it doesn’t. Just ask our regional teams how they felt when they had to video in all the time. And we are a progressive software company.

Sorry folks, but working for someone (as someone that also owned their own agency for 20 years) involves some compromise. So what are you prepared to give to be part of the organisation you have chosen to work at, in the role you agreed to do?

Does reduced travel time or ‘easy’ outweigh opportunities to influence, grow, learn or teach?

Now is a great time to think and talk about what works for you right now, but consider the bigger picture. Think about the needs of your team, your employer and the quality of your output. And where you’ll be in a year or two. 

Sure, if you don’t manage anyone, collaborate with anyone and your job is purely transactional, then maybe sitting on a train for two hours is a waste of time.

But creativity, design, strategising, writing, developing, iterating, improving, breaking, fixing and planning takes lots of little conversations to achieve greatness. Not one or two scheduled Zoom chats.

It’s walking past a dev or a designer and seeing something on a screen. It’s overhearing a conversation. Learning about a problem over a coffee.

But hey, I could be wrong.

There really is no point arguing about something that hasn’t happened yet. So let’s visit this in a year’s time and see where we all are.

Maybe technology will solve the collaboration piece and we will all end up working together in a VR office.

Until then, I’ll be enjoying hanging out with real people in our office, in the heart of one of the coolest cities on the planet, creating software, and drinking bubbly water served straight from the tap.

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