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The remote working challenge for Big Tech

8 Feb 2021

Is Big Tech about to get disrupted by the remote working revolution? Elaine Burke asks if this shift in the way we work will benefit the small and nimble.

The prospect of long-term remote working can be enticing or terrifying, depending on how you look at it. For some, it represents opportunity and progress towards a new future of work. For others, it’s an unwelcome headache.

Whichever side you’re on, there’s no questioning that a pivot to permanent remote working, or even a hybrid format, is a challenge. The ‘make do and carry on’ approach taken in response to initial Covid-19 restrictions is not a sustainable model, though it has certainly forced businesses to take some small steps toward a new way of working.

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For some businesses, the only long-term impact of this year-long adaptation will, perhaps, be a warmer welcome to the idea of flexibility. Just that one magical word can mean a lot. It can mean employees shaping their working lives around their families to maximise their quality time together. It can mean necessary appointments can be made and kept without having to use holiday days. It can mean those holidays will be spent truly decompressing and returning to work refreshed. It can mean staying at home with a head cold instead of powering through and possibly putting yourself and others out of action completely.

Flexibility is about the least you can do for a happy and healthy workforce. But some businesses have committed to much more. Companies such as Basecamp, Doist, Shopify and GitLab have all taken a remote-first approach to work. And, in doing so, they have set templates for others to follow.

You can’t just step into the future of work with ease, though. This pivot is so tricky to master that it’s really more of a pirouette.

Going fully remote requires a rethink of the fundamentals. How you communicate has to adapt to distance and asynchronous timelines. How you recruit, onboard and train employees will need solid foundations. How you measure performance and evaluate employees will have to change. And you’ll need to figure out how to instil company values and create an inclusive culture across a distributed team. Oh, and to do all this, you’ll need a stellar team and phenomenal managers.

All of this presents a huge undertaking. And with the challenge being so great, scale becomes a big issue.

Big Tech’s legacy issue

Remote working requires such a transformation of the pillars of traditional ways of working that it’s akin to introducing new computer technologies to legacy systems. This isn’t just installing an update; this is a system overhaul. And, perhaps surprisingly, it’s Big Tech that’s raising some red flags.

First and foremost, these massive multinationals face potential tax problems if their workers are working from anywhere, which could be why Google reportedly requested its teams to continue working remotely in the country in which they were hired. That problem is easily solved with clear definitions on what remote work means, but there are other signs of remote resistance in the tech world.

Tech journalist Adrian Weckler noted in his latest newsletter that Microsoft “pointedly said that the 200 hires are not remote positions” regarding a recent Irish jobs announcement. Could it be that one of the key software providers enabling remote work doesn’t trust in its own tools?

It could be that Big Tech giants, which have scaled businesses to work to a certain code of practice, will come to realise that theirs is now the language of legacy.

This will have a major impact on workplace dynamics. The past decade or so, tech companies have disrupted workplaces not just with their tools and services but with their approach to work. The competition for talent drove these companies to reinvent workplaces and deliver new in-office perks. This then trickled down to other industries, which had to level up to compete for the same top-tier talent.

But if Big Tech can’t meet the demands for remote working, small innovators might just gain an advantage in the ongoing talent battle. Whether employers change their workplaces or not is entirely down to them, but the fact is that some companies are willing or already able to offer employees what they want. And the fundamental changes required for remote working are a lot easier for small and agile businesses to take on.

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Elaine Burke
By Elaine Burke

Elaine Burke is editor of Silicon Republic, having served a few years as managing editor up to 2019. She joined in 2011 as a journalist covering gadgets, new media and tech jobs. She comes from a background in publishing and is known for being particularly pernickety when it comes to spelling and grammar – earning her the nickname, Critical Red Pen.

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