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The children are our future; our future is in their hands. And where do they spend the majority of their time as they grow up? 

They spend it in broken education systems which continue to support the current (flawed) status quo and propagate the kind of ways of living that are now being proven to be unsustainable for our planet and for the inhabitants of our planet, including ourselves. Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot.

Most proponents of remote and flexible working focus on the freedom and flexibility for individuals and, for companies, the reduced cost of having no office plus the ability to hire the best talent possible from a global pool. But this is NOT the whole story, it’s really just a tiny part of it.

Remote working isn’t an isolated phenomenon; it’s at the intersection of a number of shifts in the way we live and work…

  • A shift in the education of our children, especially with the rise of home education as a viable alternative to the broken system that still prevails.
  • A shift in why we, as individuals, show up to work and the way we show up to work.
  • A shift in the culture of work, especially those driven by the particularly capitalist goals of presenteeism, profitability and productivity.

If we can get this ‘right’, remote work is more than just a shift in the way we work, it’s a key enabler of many of these bigger shifts which have the potential to change everything…

  • How is it possible for parents to stay at home and home educate their children if they have to show up to work in an office, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week? Remote (and flexible) work, where we are empowered to find a better balance in when, where and how we work that better integrates with our personal lives.
  • How is it possible for more people to find work they’re passionate about when they’re limited to a 30-mile radius of travel, or they live in an area of limited opportunities? Remote work, where opportunities are available to you online, no matter where you live and what geographical or travel limitations you face.
  • How is it possible to overcome the culture of presenteeism that keeps people stuck in offices until 8pm? Remote (and flexible) work, where the focus is on effectiveness and efficiency rather than solely the number of hours we’ve spent showing our faces in the office.
  • How is it possible to increase productivity and profitability without also increasing the number of hours each person has to work? Remote (and flexible) work, where the focus is on results and achieving agreed goals by trusting the individual to work in a way – in a place and way – that works best for them.

The challenge is how we shift the conversation around remote and flexible work to incorporate these bigger shifts. And it begins with a radically honest look at what’s stopping us, as a society, from doing this…

Inequality, Diversity and Imbalance

When the Location Independent movement first began to gain traction, there were various undercurrents I felt then but couldn’t put my finger on. Reflecting upon this now, almost a decade later, I recognise the undercurrents as sexism and racism.

Many of my interactions – when I ran a multi-authored blog, garnered international press, and spearheaded a movement which has grown in a way I could not have predicted – stemmed from a particular subset of society: Young, single, childless, white men.

I could feel a sense of frustration from many that the movement was spearheaded by a woman…A non-white woman, no less…One who, by appearance, was a diminutive Asian woman and probably not what people expected when they first got in touch…A non-white and back then still in-the-closet gay woman, because while I hadn’t yet come out during this period, people can feel the energy and men were then, as they sometimes are now, threatened by my direct approach and what is often deemed more ‘masculine’ energy.

Right after the birth of my first child in 2009, I endured a highly unpleasant experience at the hands of one of these young men who went on a public, divisive and damaging campaign which resulted in me consulting an international libel lawyer (for The Sun newspaper, no less!) who told me I clearly had a case but it would have cost too much to pursue and probably wasn’t worth the stress, energy and money to do so.

What followed was a prolonged period during which location independence – and particularly the digital nomadic and global travel style of it – became the preserve of the single, white, millennial guy. Sure, there were a few women doing it too, but it was mostly men.

While things have moved on since then, the digital nomad/remote work/location independent movement is still nowhere near as diverse or accessible as it could (should) be.

The challenge here is partly in the data; there’s very little of it supporting my sense of some of the hurdles faced that I see in my daily personal and professional life.

And while statistics exist such as: Roughly the same percent of women and men work remotely. 52% of work-at-home employees are female.

[Source: 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce]

There are conflicting stats which state: Men across the globe are 8% more likely than women to work remotely.

[Source: 2018 Global State of Remote Work]

Many of the people who could benefit most from being able to work remotely – single parents especially mothers, those with a disability or chronic illness, those on benefits, those in rural communities – are least likely to know about it, consider it, or consider themselves capable of doing it.

Stigma, Misconceptions and Bad Experiences

Frustratingly, remote work is still largely associated for many with work-from-home scams, work online stings and opportunities to work for far-less-than-minimum-wage hourly rates with no rights at all.

From this perspective it’s not hard to see why many of the people who might most benefit from accessing remote work opportunities don’t investigate it further.

Women in my network – often educated, smart, experienced women – have had no idea of this ‘other online world’ that exists and certainly no clue how to access it. Their perspective usually comes from the ubiquitous cards stuck to lamp posts advertising ‘great’ work-from-home opportunities!

Their awareness that such a world exists is also often coloured by the glamorous, sponsored posts that appear on facebook feeds promising a rich life of nomadic family travel and balancing one’s exciting family adventures with working from the beach on a laptop while the kids cavort in the surf nearby.

Here again, remote work becomes reduced to digital nomadism and a life of travel that for many is either not what they want or feels utterly unattainable given school, family, partner’s work, or other commitments. Thus moving remote work further out of their sphere of possibility.

My own experience of exclusion in a remote working role for a fairly well known ‘guru’, bears further evidence that remote working – and being able to hire from a global talent pool – doesn’t automatically mean increased diversity and a more inclusive culture. In fact my experience was the exact opposite…

The investment in an inclusive culture was non-existent – especially for a company whose primary audience is women all over the globe – and yet the company is run exclusively by white men. And I – as a gay, female, non-white, single parent – frequently felt marginalised and that my progress and contributions were restricted or not acknowledged precisely because of my diversity (the fact that one of the leadership team accused me of mentioning my diversity as ‘entitlement’ speaks volumes as to the culture of that particular company!).

Further alienating certain groups from imagining themselves as possible remote work candidates is the differentiation that has sprung up here (as in the workforce more generally) that white, middle-class, heterosexual men can access the majority of the remote ‘career’ roles, with the more temporary, admin- or task-related work performed by everyone else.

Why would under-represented groups continue to choose to put themselves in a seemingly hostile workplace, remote or not?

The Cost of Exclusion

With increasingly global audiences, hiring remotely and not being restricted to a specific geographic region to build your workforce enables you to build a team far more representative of a global audience, which truly understands its customers, than ever before.

Ignorance of unconscious biases – the things we’re unaware of that cause us to make snap judgments and form opinions about people, such as their names, age, etc. – in the hiring process will, even with the opportunity to hire far and wide, hamper these efforts and lead to the same challenges around increasing diversity and inclusion being baked into the remote workforce as it is in the general workforce.

There’s a real opportunity for the increase in remote working to drive an increase and improvement in the diversity of a company’s workforce but only if those hiring adapt the recruitment process, not only to hire remotely, but to hire ‘equally’.

That companies can almost by default increase the diversity of their team by accessing a far larger talent pool does not mean it will automatically happen.

Safety, Security and Self Actualisation

Many of the biggest benefits cited by those who already work remotely – more freedom, more flexibility, more family time, less stress etc. – fundamentally change our experience of what it is to work and pursue a career, while also balancing the rest of our lives around this.

With the ability to work from different live/work spaces, as we choose, sometimes to the schedule we choose, the impact on our routines (and our family’s routines) can be quite literally life-changing.

[Side note: The impact of recent virus outbreaks has also been eye-opening when it comes to personal safety and the enforcement of remote working to try and prevent the spread of a disease. If companies can do it when they have to, they can also choose to without the gnashing of teeth and arguing that it’s not possible/effective/insert other management excuse!]

If our basic needs are more than met – according to Maslow’s hierarchy – what comes next? At the top of the tree is self-actualisation – the opportunity to fulfil our potential, to be what we are ‘meant’ to be…

The growth of remote work could indeed fuel our ability to self actualise but it is not guaranteed and if this access and opportunity isn’t distributed and available equally and fairly we risk maintaining the status quo and furthering the deeply entrenched inequalities that already exist.

These inequalities currently impact heavily on some of the most important role models of our time – parents, who are the role models and guiding hands of future generations.

There exists a deep desire amongst younger generations – millenials have been leading the way on this path – to radically and fundamentally change the way we work and live. We are – or can be – the changing of the guard, but are we up to the job?

If we can get out of our own way, remote work is more than just a shift in the way we work, it’s a key enabler of many of these bigger shifts which have the potential to change everything…

  • It can change the way we educate future generations, and the role models we provide to them of what a career, that’s about more than just money, could look like.
  • It can change the way we integrate work and life, moving closer towards that elusive ‘balanced’ lifestyle.
  • It can fuel the pursuit of passions, a creative revolution and self-actualisation.
  • It can change the way we travel, and why we travel.
  • It can change the geography and economics of countries, and the communities within them.
  • It can change the fabric and culture of the companies we work for and with.
  • It can change the nature of our working (and personal) relationships.

Remote working isn’t the whole story, it’s a small yet crucial chapter of a far bigger book which can could have a very different ending from the one we’re currently facing.

There exists an immeasurable opportunity for remote work to become the foundation, the enabler and the driver of a fundamental shift in the way we live and work. Are we up to the job?