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Will remote working become the new normal?

By Dr Mariann Hardey - March 2020

Global concern about the impact and spread of COVID-19 has forged a new ‘normal’ for the foreseeable future, with remote working being strongly encouraged in many parts of the world and organisers having no choice but to cancel international events.

Much of my research is about the kinds of interventions to enable under-represented groups to be better supported in their professional roles. These include:

  • remote working
  • making international conferences/events accessible to those with caring roles and disabilities (remote presentations and affiliations
  • sponsorship for families to travel together; and funding to pay for care support with individuals are away)
  • and embracing novel interactions (everything from using tools like Slack, #hashtag indexing, to experimenting with audio recordings and different methods of file-sharing for individuals with unreliable internet connections).

Before COVID-19 practices such as remote working and digital presenting were, often, regarded as secondary to in-person interactions. This meant requests from disability groups, or anyone with a caring role, to implement changes that allow individuals to 'beam in' were often challenged - see this Forbes survey about such workforce demands. Such actions are seen as 'too expensive' or 'too difficult' to coordinate and organise.

Amid COVID-19 the same barriers throw up common challenges. However, some groups are doing better. The International Communication Association (ICA) conference aims to advance the scholarly study of human communication by encouraging and facilitating excellence in research worldwide. Aha! The same conference is still going ahead with proper support for virtual presenting and attendance.

But presenting via video-conference can be problematic, right? Yep. So as you would expect from an international communication association, there are some innovations: Presenters will have the option to pre-record talks, or to join in-person live and develop critical conversations in much the same way we currently undertake social interactions using apps like Whatsapp, Messenger, iMessage etc. And this is good. We're forced into thinking outside the box, we maintain sponsorship and commercial levels of support, we get to interact with research communities at a global scale, and we (inadvertently) save the planet. Importantly these are all methods that go a long way to support accessibility. Other conferences such as FutureMed have allowed participants to attend as a robot!

To maintain the momentum and sponsorship around other international events, we have an opportunity, now, to advocate for each other. This means being prepared to make very sudden changes to how we attend and experience professional activities, and take forward how we work with each other. The out-dated criteria for career promotion such as 'number of international conferences attended' can (and should) be challenged/changed to embrace new methods of finding and connecting to each other. This method will allow anyone with a disability or caring role to significantly improve their contribution to events and 'prove' their worth to organisations. Also meaningful is the willingness of people to swap climate-guzzling global travel for greener and more climate-friendly alternatives.

Traditional accounts of work tend to concentrate either on overall levels of activity in the workplace, on things like international professional impact (how much of a 'hit' globally are you?), or on particular ways of working, like the long hours sat passively in an office or out in the field. Up to now, there have been very limited resources in support of remote working or the 'best' or good practices that workers can implement. Guilt, feeling isolated, disadvantaging one's career, or anxiety about missing out frequently appear as barriers to remote work. There remains very little to support the experience of attending international events in remote form - this is difficult to do well for the audience experience, presenter or to make it suitably commercial for sponsorship.

There are many successful and fun methods of remote working. Here are some things that I am doing:

  • I use an online booking system as an 'open door' to times when I am available for a virtual meeting - this takes the pressure off using an online poll/multiple emails back and forth trying to discover when everyone is free;

  • I check in on colleagues through social media - Facebook, LinkedIn and mostly Twitter. The equivalent 'gathering around the water cooler' over lunch at work.

  • I am disconnecting properly for periods of time to disengage from 'work'. This will be different for you, but I seek to practice disconnection when my daughter is around - I admit, I find this hard to do, especially as my phone is my primary camera. What I will do in the future is return to using one of my old cameras and physically putting my device out of temptation’s reach.

  • I am taking my work outside - literally taking work/ideas/conversations into the garden, onto walks and away from my desk.

  • I am reorganising my conference presentations into material that can be presented as animated slides with or without video/voice-over. So there's a cut down version with pictures and 'questions' to the reader/audience, and lots of links out; and another extended version with me speaking to the slides. I've tried this in my teaching before. Students prefer the cut-down version (with less of me) and more contextual things for them to do, e.g. 'go read this', or 'listen to this podcast' before they can then move onto the next slide. Remember those books when you had to choose what happened at the end of each chapter? I try to set up my presentations in the same way. This way, my audience is actively engaging with 'stuff', are not bored by the sound of my voice, or distracted by the poor quality of the sound/image.

  • I am also doing silly meetings, such as 'going for virtual lunch and guess what I am eating' invitation. This sounds a bit odd, but you and someone else agree to a lunch date, you both bring food and drink supplies and audio connect. If you do not mind a bit of munching over the line, you can guess at what each other has bought and connect as a very cut down lunch date.

  • I am [trying] to re-wire my guilt/anxiety about physically not being there. This means re-evaluating how I use email and 'behave' in communications. I am not using my emails as a 'to-do list'. Instead, my method is to write down a list of 'stuff' each day in preparation for the day ahead. In the morning, I do not check my email (aggghhhh, this is so tough to do), and to task one. Once I have completed task one, I am allowed to 'just' check my email. Be very careful to not fall down the rabbit hole of replying to messages for the sake of it. If your brain is like mine, you are perky first in the morning. I save my 'admin' tasks (email) for periods when I am brain weary and use my super-powers on things that require proper attention first thing. Like weight-lifting, this method takes time to build up strength.

  • Top tip. Leave the house first thing (COVID-19 update pending of course). If it is kids to nursery/school/the moon, or taking the pup for a jog, or walking into your favourite coffee place for a takeout, leaving the house and returning to do 'work' will enhance your remote productivity and wellbeing. This is because you are deliberately changing the flow of your presence from being at home for 'leisure' time and in your pyjamas, to proper clothes/an outfit appropriate for being seen in public and work mode. I couldn't be productive remotely unless I had the routine of leaving the house and coming back in. Having a dedicated workspace helps too, but often this isn't realistic.

  • Finally, do not get distracted by doing home-tasks/DIY. Or interacting with the cat/dog!!!

By focusing on 'being there', we have developed a fascinating display in the presencing of our 'work' and doing work in professional settings. Upon our actions hangs the future of international event attendance, work presencing, and ways we can sustain inclusive professional practices in the future.

More information

  • Watch a video of Dr Hardey's tips.
  • Explore Dr Hardey’s blog here.
  • Read the University’s COVID-19 notice here.
  • For further research articles by the School’s faculty, read IMPACT magazine.