More and more people are working remotely. But whilst working from home or using tools such as Slack, Skype, Zoom, or other digital connectors, has proven hugely advantageous for many, it is not without its downsides. I spoke with Mike Raven, co-founder of AQai and experienced digital nomad, about the drawbacks and benefits of remote working and how it influences, and is influenced by, our adaptability.
“I have experienced significant isolation and disconnect working remotely”
Mike started working remotely four years ago, after seeking to leave the city where he worked after a series of life-altering circumstances. He wanted to travel, explore, and get space. At first, he assumed he would have to quit his job. At the time, remote working was relatively new. But after hearing about Remote Year programs, he became interested in maintaining his current role if possible. It seemed too-good-to-be-true that there were people out there travelling and working. But he knew he wanted to do it. He was incredibly nervous about pitching the idea of him remotely working to his friend and (at the time) boss, Ross Thornley (who would later go on to become co-founder with him at AQai). However, the first thing Ross said when Mike raised the idea was: ‘We’ve got to find a way to get you on it.’ Mike smiles as he tells me: ‘There was no request for a business case or anything like that.’
We might view this as a moment of experimentation and Flexibility on both the part of Ross and Mike. AQai, which Mike and Ross would go on to found together, understands Adaptability Quotient in terms of three broad dimensions: Ability (your adaptability skills such as Resilience, Unlearning and Flexibility, which are learnable), Character (your innate adaptability style) and Environment (which can help or inhibit adaption). Of course, working remotely creates a very different Environment too. Whilst it affords more space for learning, autonomy, creativity, and personal working style, it offers less in the way of Community and Managerial support, unless this is built into the remote working culture of the organisation, which is a topic we’ll return to later.
Mike says there are two further qualities that are really important to the way they do things and AQ in general. Curiosity, the desire to discover more and explore in an almost child-like and playful manner. And a shift from motivation to optimism. Mike describes Ross as an ‘eternal optimist’, which is certainly reflected in his supportive actions towards Mike.
The decision to go remote was a huge moment for Mike. He became the first person, in a team of 15, to work remotely. He tells me that colleagues raised concerns at the time. Some people were inspired and curious. Others questioned how much work he could really be doing abroad.
‘I feel there are a lot of misconceptions about remote working. If you’re working from home, what does your average day look like? Studies show you actually work longer hours than in an office. Your lunchbreak is always shorter.’
However, there is a lot of pressure to remain ‘engaged’. Mike discussed how he became paranoid about missing phone calls, or not being available on Slack.
‘You start to feel isolated from decision-making when there’s no remote working policy,’
he says. This might also feed into the Resilience dimension of AQ. Working remotely, where there are less resources to uplift, requires a lot of Resilience.
‘You tend to feel invisible when you remote-work, so you have a desire to be seen to be engaged,’ he says. He outlined that his loneliness and isolation with remote working only came about when he started working remotely from home, earlier this year.
‘Working remotely in a shared-space environment, and working alone from home, are two very different things,’
Mike says. ‘There’s a real risk to mental health in remote working. There’s more internal dialogue. Is it healthy? We all have an ego voice, but what voice gets most heard? Is it the one that tells you you’re unproductive, or the helpful one that tells you to take a walk?’ There is a lot of anxiety over what other people perceive, especially if you don’t have a shared understanding of what remote working is.
Things have come a long way since those early days, however. Now, there are movements to reconnect and support remote workers, such as “Slack communities” and programs such as Leaper, of which Mike is a member. ‘There are about 2000 members. They organise things like get-togethers and shared working spaces.’ Mike remarked that whilst he fully embraces technology and digitization, and it is essential for business growth, digital interactions have added even more complexity to the ‘human element’ of working.
‘The idea is that you are a blend of the five people you spend most time with. But what if you’re alone? What happens then? And does it count as much if you’re digitally interacting? There is something powerful in simple physical interactions, such as a handshake or a hug.’
We talked about the importance of those sundry interactions and ‘watercooler’ conversations. ‘All of that is lost via text,’ he said. ‘You tend to do the bare minimum. You say “morning” because you have to, but then you go straight into work-related queries. Whereas in an office, a conversation might lead to, for example, a few drinks after work or a social gathering. That can’t happen as readily in digital interactions. The conversation stops at a certain point. We tend to hide behind text and even behind Skype and Zoom to an extent.’ The problem with this is not just the missed social element, but the way ideas area generated more naturally from those face-to-face conversations. Are organisations that are entirely remote missing out on creative input as a result of not having as many opportunities for free-flowing conversation and interaction?
According to Mike, there are organisations that are doing it right. Aula, a ‘remote working first’ organisation, has a workforce that is pretty much entirely remote. ‘They have a site, called The Aula Brain, which is a wiki for everything they stand for,’ Mike says, directing me to it. Aula ditched their office at 40 employees, and this led more than simply a working-space shift, but also a cultural one. They began to prioritise results over hours-worked, moving away from that traditional corporate notion of paying for time, and that time being required regardless of output. Aula have shown their capability to Unlearn old processes and ideals, and embrace new ones, a key aspect of high AQ. They have also shown a lot of Learning Drive in their desire to fully understand the pitfalls remote working and create their own wiki for the utility of their staff. They’ve shown AQ Flexibility in their thinking. Flexibility seems to be a core requirement of not only being a remote worker, but also creating a healthy remote working culture in an organisation.
‘One of their policies is that they embrace asychronous communication over sychronous communication, which is really interesting. So, you don’t have to immediately respond to every message. You can’t when people are internationally spread, anyway.’
Aula also have a stipend where they fund people up to £200 to visit someone else in the team. For example, if they are working on a collaborative project. They also have a stipend for social team get-togethers.
Another is Precision Nutrition, who are entirely remote-working and have over 200 staff.
Mike’s decision to work remotely directly led to the creation of something new, in fact. Far from hampering creativity, it has spawned a whole new phase of his life and brought several new tools into being. In having conversations around the nature of his remote role in the company with Ross, Mike and Ross discussed innovation itself, which led them to create a company called Leaps, which mentors organisations to accelerate company growth and solutions. From there, they began to identify adaptability as a core aspect of this growth, which sparked their interest and deep research into Adaptability Quotient, finally founding AQai, which has created the first ever holistic metric of AQ.
‘One thing that’s interesting is that a good proportion of the RemoteYear people go on into entrepreneurship or freelancing.’
He goes on to outline how, if you’re an organisation that is encouraging remote-working, you have to bear in mind the changes such an experience might create. ‘Once you expose people to a new way of working, their ambitions may shift, and you have to be fully supportive of that,’ Mike says. ‘You have to care about your people and help them to do that.’ It’s clear that AQ and Flexible thinking are not just about driving innovation but also about being flexible in terms of complex human relationships. Mike uses the phrase ‘bravery’ to describe what is required of future creators.
‘There are organisations out there doing amazing things with remote working. But I think they have to take ownership of that. It has to be built into the company,’ Mike says. He gives the example of eXp Realty, a real-estate brockerage company with 13,000 staff, and a market cap of $610 million, that operates entirely in the virtual world.
‘They have built a virtual world. You have an avatar,’ Mike says. You can walk around the virtual world and chat to fellow employees, take a seat at a table to have a meeting, or else grab a coffee from a virtual shop. Some employees change their clothes every day, just as in real life. The platform looks like World of Warcraft with office-wear. Naturally, there is an element of gameification here. By inhabiting the virtual space, employees are much more likely to approach problems the way a gamer would approach them, which is with a lot more lateral thinking. Of course, many gamers use online games to connect with friends across the globe, so it seems natural that this might also be utilised in the business realm. In addition, because a virtual world has its own dimensions and ‘space’ (unlike something like Slack, which is more like a social-media site in design), it means that you can simulate those coffee-machine / watercooler conversations, those serendipitous moments of creativity.
eXp Realty has achieved a feat of adaptability, shifting virtually their entire functional operation to the digital space. However, given the success they’ve achieved, their experiment is clearly paying off.
A platform call Virbela provides this virtual world for the future of work, Mike’s co-founder, Ross has spent time collaborating and experimenting at virtual conferences in this platform and remarks, ‘one interesting aspect is ‘zonal-sound’ by where you can only here the voices of those within your proximity in the virtual space. Allowing digital networking of large numbers, to be able to move and chat, much like in the real world’.
‘All these digital tools are undoubtedly brilliant,’ Mike says. ‘But they are also a double edged sword.’ Text lacks the nuance of speech, especially in abbreviated format. ‘There are tools, such as Crystal, that analyse writing style and LinkedIn profiles in order to determine the personality of the team-members involved. They then give you recommendations for communicating with other team members based on those personalities. For example, X person might respond better to positive encouragement, and Y might respond better to more critical feedback. I love this but it’s also scary. That’s another human skill that’s being lost.’ Mike worries that in the future, honest mistakes, which are vital learning (and Unlearning) opportunities, might be missed out if we rely too much on technology to make us ‘perfect’.
It’s clear that as much as we need to adapt and embrace the opportunities that technology can provide us for digitally connecting, we also need to stay connected in the old fashioned way.
‘We want to organise physical “workations” and retreats for our teams. We don’t have to work together in an office all the time. That doesn’t suit us. But a few times a year we meet up and occupy that space together and get that real dynamic.’
As with so many things in life, it seems a happy medium is always key.