Working remotely

Yesterday we participated in the semi-annual meeting of our congregation. The meeting was held remotely over Zoom. I’m not sure how many people participated, but participants had to scroll through several screens to see all of the participants and early in the meeting, the clerks declared that a quorum of 44 people were present. Several of the screens, like ours, showed two participants in the same frame. I learned long ago that it is too distracting for me to stay in the gallery view when there are more than eight or ten participants, so we participated with the view that shows the speaker in a large frame with a single row of frames of participants.

We’re pretty comfortable with the Zoom format. We were early adopters of Skype when our daughter moved to England a decade ago. We really appreciated the ability to see her as we talked with her. It was a good way for us to tell how she was doing. Over the years, she has lived quite a distance from us, not only in England, but also in Japan and now she lives in South Carolina. We also used Skype to keep in touch with our grandchildren and still find it to be a good way to keep regular contact with our grandson who lives in South Carolina. We went through a phase of purchasing two copies of children’s books so that we could read to our grandchildren over Skype. They would look at one copy and we would have the other. We’d read, giving them clues of when to turn the pages. Yesterday, as we visited with our grandson, we got out our puppets of Grover and Cookie Monster and did an impromptu puppet presentation for our grandson. It wasn’t exactly up to the standards of the television shows that he is allowed to watch occasionally, but it was enough to hold his attention and we got to see his face and his reactions over the distance.

Video conferencing, however, never was a very big part of our work life. We relied on face to face meetings and direct conversations to do our pastoral work. Although the telephone was a major tool in our work, there were plenty of times when just going to a person and seeing them face to face was a much preferable option for sharing prayer and counsel.

The pandemic hit a few months before our retirement and we upped our technological game quite a bit. Our church invested in a second video camera and we learned to livestream worship. I made daily prayer livestream videos for the congregation. We used remote meeting software to continue the work of the church when face to face meetings were not advised.

The change was much more dramatic for some workers, however. In offices all around the world, people began to work remotely, usually from home. They used computers and video conferencing to keep in touch and coordinate work with others. Microsoft had previously purchased Skype and transformed the Skype for Business application into Microsoft Teams and bundled it with their popular office tools.

Suddenly people weren’t spending 40 and more hours in a physical office. They were working remotely and often asynchronously. Responsibilities for childcare and family life forced adjustments of schedule. Videos of children and pets appearing in the midst of serious business meetings went viral. There was a degree of humanizing that came from the physical distance.

To be clear, only some jobs can be performed remotely. During the pandemic there were plenty of workers who had to be physically present to do their work. They got some attention as frontline workers, but many of the jobs that require physical presence are also jobs that paid lower wages. The ability to work remotely was reserved for a certain elite group of workers.

Initially some workers discovered that they didn’t need to pull the long hours - 50 or 60 per week - in order to be productive. In fact, many discovered a truth that researchers have been long known: putting in more hours does not result in increased productivity. In fact people learned to be more productive by working fewer hours. We’ve known for years that it is productivity that matters, but business rewards presenteeism. Just being in the office is frequently rewarded. Those who arrive early and stay late are more likely to be noticed by management and promoted to higher paying jobs.

Fairly early in the pandemic the urge to work longer hours began to take place even in the lives of those who were working remotely. They felt pressure to be constantly connected. They worried that missing an email might indicate that they were not being productive. They responded to communications quickly and allowed their work to infringe on family time. For many the distinction between work and family life blurred. Family meals were also times to check the phone for messages. Time with children was interrupted to make an appearance online. Workers felt the need to be accessible early in the morning and late at night because coworkers worked adjusted hours to fit together family life and work.

During the pandemic many of those who were able made major adjustments to their work and home life. Some moved to new homes that were more distant from their offices, hoping that they would be able to continue working remotely indefinitely. It is estimated that the workplace of the future will often not involve an office or a particular physical location. There will be more and more jobs that are not dependent upon a specific place. This may work for some jobs, but there will be plenty of others that still require physical presence. And there will be plenty of workers who feel pressured to work extended hours just to be present, even if that presence is online instead of sitting at a desk.

Studies have shown that many businesses lose productivity by enforcing rigid work hours and worker presence. Allowing flexibility for family and other obligations increases productivity. But they also show that too much flexibility decreases productivity. It appears that the balance may be somewhere around 15 to 20 hours per week of actual presence in an office with additional hours worked remotely. All of that depends on the type of work and the amount of collaboration required.

The pandemic forced us to take a look at how we work, but it remains to be seen whether or not we have learned much from this experiment.

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