Remote Work & WFH shaped by location-driven experiences

After decades delivering and building remote work jobs, Work-From-Home discussions feel like therapy to me. While remote work seems to make physical locations irrelevant, our experiences tied to physical locations will shape our work regardless of where we are.
diego navia digital operations

By Diego A. Navia

As a remote worker for decades and long-time resident of one of the largest recipients of recent internal migration – COVID-19, tax exiles and remote workers – in America: Miami, discussing remote work, feels like therapy to me. Several new articles explain how people are now choosing where to live for reasons different to being close to their jobs; after all it seems corporate and social expectations are now catching up with technology and thus we can work from anywhere. 

Why do you Live here?

Having recently relocated and established my family full time in the US, I asked a colleague, Why do you live here? Behind the obnoxious and politically incorrect question lied years of relocations and remote work across several countries and cities. To me, during the early 2000’s, it was obvious you should pick where you lived, based on the lifestyle and cultural affinity you were looking for.  After all, my work demanded I fly where I was needed, or simply connect over the phone and deliver specific outcomes.  

 

Of course, at the time, I was looked at as an alien and my colleagues were much more politically correct than me and changed the topic without explaining the obvious answer to my question: family connections, job opportunities and cultural affinity drive the comfort levels behind decisions like these. This is far from the current definition of remote work but I was basically following the same logic: 

if you can work anywhere, where would you live?

The irruption of COVID-19 and the availability of cheap bandwidth, among other things, are catalysts accelerating the Work-from-home phenomenon, a specific and widespread application of remote work and the key pillar of a broad-based remote workforce. As any other major change, the migration to remote work has been gradual. Starting with client activities no longer delivered face-to-face, remote work expanded from phones to computers and from sales to other corporate functions, moving work to increasingly farther locations.  

 We’ve all experienced customer service delivered from locations around the world, and companies, particularly large ones, are adept to establishing remote processing operations in low cost locations that enable lower delivery cost, particularly for back-office activities either through their own employees, or third parties (outsourcing), in-country or overseas (Offshoring/ nearshoring). These operations are of course remote for both external and internal clients but not for the large teams (ranging from hundreds or tens of thousands) that deliver similar work, co-located to deliver specific capabilities and realize economies of scale.

Shift to Remote Work has been gradual

Over a period of almost ten years -and ironically a remote job I delivered from Miami even though the job description was  based off New York City/ London- I had the opportunity to define the strategy and setup operations for these types of centers in the US, Argentina, Poland, Phillipines, China, India and connect them to several satellite hubs.  This to say I come to this topic both from personal experience but also wearing a corporate hat responsible for setting up thousands of remote jobs. Whether individual or corporate, remote work discussions tend to focus on two straightforward elements:

Physical Space

Good seating ergonomics, adequate lighting, ambient noise, etc. On the corporate side there are many other considerations of course including permits, code compliance, local building code, fire inspections, floor layouts, space ratio per employee, clustering vs on-demand workspaces, open spaces vs closed offices, lease legal language, contract lengths, etc, to address compliance, HR, Financial, and People requirements.

Technology & Connectivity

Good internet access, a reasonably good computer and, depending on the circumstances, high quality mics, cameras and collaboration software, including videoconferencing. Behind the scenes, at a corporate level there are endless technical layers including security, tiered access control, encryption, cloud access to software, etc. Just the software discussion can take forever as you define what pieces of software to use, how to connect them, how to manage distributed traffic, optimize servers and network for a global footprint, manage workflow, collaboration, knowledge, intellectual property, etc.

Physical location and technology considerations are just the “down payment” for a remote workforce

Throughout my personal and professional journey as a remote worker, building and delivering remote work at scale globally (15k staff+), I’ve found the physical and technology considerations are just the “down payment” for a remote workforce because in essence, you face migrating from traditional operations to a digital, networked Operating model. While there are many aspects that can be discussed at length, including the challenges of parenting while at home, I would like to focus on two specific items that I consider key going forward:

Culture &
Sense of Belonging

The way decision-making works, most of us decide based on a core set of beliefs associated with the experiences we’ve had and those are typically tied to the location and the people we’ve surrounded ourselves with, over the years

Being remote and having video conference access can make us live under the illusion we understand our counterparts and that high level understanding may very well be enough for common discussions and handoffs yet may fall short when dealing with complex challenges, solving complex problems or building new capabilities.

 

Even if we forget about language barriers, decision-making processes that rely on a core set of beliefs associated with the experiences we’ve accumulated – typically tied to the location and people we’ve surrounded ourselves with over the years – can complicate remote collaboration. While examples include all work areas including how you perform, measure and deliver work, probably the most impactful examples tend to be found in the most unexpected areas such as body language, verbal expressions and physical appearance. 

a manager was frustrated and seemed almost insulted by me moving my arms too much

When I first worked in the Midwest, a manager was frustrated and seemed almost insulted by me moving my arms too much when presenting and asked me to keep them still behind my back. In contrast, years later a top Boston-based executive coach explained how moving my arms was, along with personal warmth, a key asset and something most top executives struggled to develop as they climbed the corporate ladder.

I vividly remember my first meeting in North Carolina when, having just moved to the US, I came in “dressed for success” only to be met with some surprised faces, similar to those people make in Asia or Latin America when someone shows up in the rather conservative and loose fitting attire some may have expected from me on that occasion. While hard to understand in many cases, dress appropriateness to local culture does matter.  Fast forward and I recall the hilarious comparison between the US and Latin American versions of the recommended dress code guide for a Big 4 firm, where one country seemed to violate the “standards” of each other either because it was considered too risqué or way too stiff and inhibiting creativity. 

In some cases, these skills can generate revenue as was the case  when a top Pharmaceutical company hired me because “the americans couldn’t get along with the Brits” and they needed “something different” to try and move forward. 

behavioral and other expectations vary by location and set the stage for the type of relationships we build

When building the global network of remote centers of expertise -now called acceleration centers at PwC, there were no shortage of examples, including an unexpected discussion around whether or not India-based staff should include numbers in their email domain and the HR implications as well as personal value perceptions associated with an apparently innocuous discussion. And so it goes with examples across China, Central Europe, Latin America, UK, Western Europe, etc. Examples of my own personal journey across cultures that point to a simple message:

Video masks large cultural disconnects that must be addressed in order to work together effectively and create a high performance virtual workplace

This also means it is more challenging to create lasting relationships and develop the comfort associated with a sense of belonging. Dr Chamorro-Premuzic articulated the difficulty of detaching from “presenteeism” which makes sense from a human nature perspective and something I watched first hand in consulting where a remote workforce has been prevalent for decades and promotion decisions have been heavily biased towards those trusted by leaders in a specific location and whose behaviors and language aligned with the unspoken cultural traits of a specific physical location where most of the power resides.

Look no further than Consulting for the dynamics of a remote workforce already in place for decades

Engagement
& Teamwork

Teamwork and Collaboration have been a key focus area for several years. Many technologies have been developed to facilitate virtual teamwork and collaboration. Whether through Slack, Zoom, Whatsapp, Teams or many others, the belief seems to be that as long as you are on the same platform, enhanced visibility, and improved search will make teamwork and engagement flourish. Having all these powerful tools definitely goes a long way in providing timely visibility into information and being able to connect any time. 

Research shows emotional connections make memories stick, creating long-lasting bonds. This may be why when doing remote work I always felt the need to physically travel at least once a year to meet people I would work with virtually. It is also why companies with global virtual workforces like zapier make it a point to get together in person at least once a year so you can share stories, share a meal, drinks and build memories together. 

Just like people adjust on the fly to different personalities to be more effective, contextual awareness and real-time cultural adaptability will become increasingly critical as the workforce becomes more global and remote

Sharing information is a great first step that must be accompanied with shared experiences to build a solid foundation over time. Something that becomes even more challenging as different cultures interact. This is where companies like my first employer, Accenture, excels. They understood early on that delivering work while adapting to individual cultures is almost impossible. Their migration to a single legal structure and its subsequent IPO -in contrast to the global federated entities they came from via the accounting Big4- helped them enormously realize their vision. 

Accenture Consulting

And thus, they set and succeeded at creating an incredibly strong global culture that created the shared values, standards and common methods, that allowed this monster organization to plug-n-play people across countries without giving it second thoughts, while super-seeding and accommodating the endless list of cultural nuances worldwide. While many organizations presume of the same advantages, their history, country of origin. legal configuration, incentives, KPI’s and other factors inhibit a truly location-agnostic, global work culture. 

Moving Forward

The future seems scary at this time and confronting both uncertainty and change can seem daunting. While challenges are likely much deeper than most of us see, I am positive and hopeful that the migration to a networked remote workforce will yield a more diverse, creative and exciting life with connections and experiences that enrich our lives in ways we never imagined. Let’s open ourselves to the possibilities and build an exciting Future Of Work together.  

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