Understanding remote work as performance

The rapid shift to remote work over the last year has often led to attempting to replicate in-person ways of working, but remotely. Without an adaptation of processes and ways of working, remote work becomes much more about “performance” than “work”.

This post is about the implications of remote work as performance, where the performance has value, and alternative ways of doing things.

Remote work as performance

One of the key differences between remote and in-person knowledge work is that when remote, you have much less information about what your colleagues are doing. You can’t see that they’re at their desk, in their office, out for lunch, in a meeting, and so on. Instead, your main check-in mechanism is to interrupt them, usually via Slack.

When your main mechanism for checking-in with colleagues becomes interrupting them, we incentivise responding rapidly to interruptions as “good”. When you have no idea what your colleagues are doing, one has the assumption: if I can reach them, they’re working! If not, they’re clearly not working.

This is the kind of fear that led to Yahoo banning remote work (the specific complaint was people were checking their emails less when working from home, so yes, exactly this).

This is also a pretty wild conclusion to come to. One can understand why we have this response, but we need remote work environments to move beyond this. Let’s explore the cost of interruptions.

The cost of interruptions

Interrupting people has a non-zero cost. This in some ways glaringly obvious, but we often don’t recognise the cost: how much harm can a quick check-in do? Interruptions steals attention and slows people down; it forces someone to re-orient themselves when they’re not expecting the interruption (which you can’t do in person), interrupts natural workflows that don’t require being interrupted for input or feedback every few minutes of so…it just makes things worse.

Cal Newport calls Slack and email an “all-day unstructured conversation”, and rightly takes aim at them:

“For most people, the paradox is that email and Slack have made their lives better by giving them more control over when they respond to messages. But this same power has also reduced focus on high-return activities like deep thinking or creative work.”

The key thing here isn’t just about managing your time so you can concentrate in bursts of productivity; it’s understanding what a person does as an activity—noticing how we’re always “on” mentally no matter where our body might be at any given moment because all remote workers are constantly checking for notifications from Slack or email.

This has a terrible cost on work/life balance, and also leads directly to the performance of remote work: the speed or frequency at which you reply to your emails becomes both the only thing perceived to matter, and the only piece of your work that’s ever done. Remote work is not going to work out in the long term where this is the case.

Leaning in to performance

Many remote workers have found ways to avoid this problem by turning off notifications and scheduling a set number of hours each day to handle email, Slack, and so on. Some remote workers will go as far as auto-replying to messages informing you of what their email schedule is, and when you can expect to hear back.

I used to think this was unnecessary, but it’s the ideal solution: if remote work is performance, lean into the performance. If we value responding to emails quickly, what could be better than an immediate response! This is expectation setting and letting technology help you out, rather than make you more reliant on it.

Little bits of automation like this are great, and with no-code tools like Zapier offering AI integrations, you can send reasonably smart responses that do the performance for you (with AI you might, for example, detect what kind of message you have received, and send a context-specific response that deals with common queries, providing an answer 25% of the time), letting you ultimately respond on your terms. This is what remote work is meant to be about: freedom and flexibility.

Moving beyond always on

Asynchronous communication, transparency, and trust are, in my opinion, the ingredients of a successful remote workplace. The suggestions above are adaptations to existing ways of working; in order to truly move beyond the always on performance, we need different ways of working.

These don’t have to be radically different: using asynchronous communication tools like Basecamp, and combining this with a very high level of transparency and trust is a superb mix.

When you trust that your team is doing whatever is best for them and the business, you remove the need to check in on Slack to see what’s going on. This is something I really struggled with as a manager early on, but – surprise – transparency and trust, and giving people space, lets people do better work.

If you don’t trust your team, there’s no way they’ll ever be able to do the work that needs doing. And if your team doesn’t trust each other and/or their managers, then every day becomes an arduous battle for everyone involved.

Asynchronous communication and trusting people also alleviates the performance pressure of remote work: the expectation stops being that everything gets a response immediately. If a message goes unanswered for an hour because someone was taking a break outside of the confines of a screen-based workplace – or because they were just Deep Working on something else – hey, that’s fine.

The non-utopian flip side of this is that where someone takes advantage of the trust, you have a problem. Right now, I don’t know how we deal with this, beyond being conscious of this in the hiring process.

Remote work as performance

Companies which can get remote work right faster than everyone else will have huge competitive advantages. Covid has accelerated remote working, but I don’t think it’s accelerated remote workplaces.

Understanding the performative nature of remote work can help us move to better ways of working, making everyone happier and more productive.