Engineering a Smarter Way to Work

working remotely

By Andrew Robson 2018-05-19 20:08:44

Remote working is rapidly becoming a popular and productive way of working in this, the information age. Done well, it harnesses the growing array of seamless technology and allows us to communicate and collaborate, without the technology getting in the way of what we are trying to do. It has the potential to improve our productivity, our work/life balance and be kinder to the environment. 

This technology isn’t going away, so why aren’t we making more use of it? Are businesses intimidated by what this new technology might mean for traditional work models? Do the traditional work models really have to change?

Don Tapscott is one of the world’s leading authorities on the impact of technology in society today. His view is simply this: “Holding back technology to preserve broken business models is like allowing blacksmiths the veto the internal combustion engine in order to protect their horseshoes.”

In the 90s it was called telecommuting, nowadays it’s simply “remote working.” Many industries these days allow some form of remote working for their staff. This can mean either, working from home, working in a smaller office much closer to home or working from a hotel room. Our technology has matured to the point that we can work anywhere we choose, so long as we have a secure connection to our office and the software we need. Search some of the remote jobs boards, such as Virtual Vocations and you’ll find jobs in IT, programming, media, customer service and web design to name but a few.

But you won’t find much in the engineering sector that I work in – marine design and consultancy. Why is this? The technology is here now, so what’s holding us back?

A Bit of Background

In the early 90's, remote working was in its infancy. You needed to be connected by phone and fax to be effective. Unsurprisingly, the uptake wasn’t huge in those days.

In 1995, nine percent of workers in the U.S. said they telecommuted at some point in their career. Compare this to 2015, and the figure has grown to around four times this. An obvious assumption to make here is that new and maturing technology has facilitated this growth, even in the last 15 years.

In 2002, I was responsible for project managing the transport of a series of ship blocks from Portsmouth to Glasgow. We were trying out video conferencing for the first time and the results weren’t that great. In fact, it was so poor that I abandoned it, preferring instead to get up at 4am and jump on a plane to Glasgow every two weeks. 

The reasons were twofold. First, the visual quality of video conferencing back then was so poor that I found it was distracting from the whole purpose of the meeting. Second, I needed to be able to sit round a table with my colleagues, point at a drawing and say ‘look, it’s that bit right there….’ These days I don’t have to. I can Skype, see my colleagues clearly at the other end and share my desktop if needs be. We can share documents via any number of cloud-based systems you care to choose from.

Why then do businesses still insist on seeing their staff sat in close proximity to them? Why change the model? There are numerous studies pointing to the benefits of remote working. Here are some of them:

Increased productivity: Best Buy, British Telecom and Dow Chemical, to name a few, say that their remote workers are 35-40 percent more productive.

Greener: Sun Microsystems estimates that its 24,000 remote workers avoided producing 32,000 tons of CO2 in a single year, since those employees weren’t driving their cars as much.

Reduced office costs: Sun Microsystems saved $68 million.

Improved worker satisfaction: Given the choice, I’d personally rather be working wherever I feel most comfortable – and that’s not always in an office with regular interruptions.

No stressful commute: The TUC reported that 3.7 million workers faced a daily commute of over two hours in 2015. Setting issues about stress aside, is this really a worthwhile use of our time?

What’s holding us back?

If the benefits are that great, why aren’t more companies jumping right in? Clearly, it’s not for everyone as some jobs can’t currently be undertaken from home. I’ve yet to see a job advert on Jobspresso.com for a surgeon or a bus driver, and if I did I’m not sure if I’d be curious or worried!

It’s also quite a personal thing. Some people just want to be in an office and wouldn’t be as motivated, whilst other studies claim that working 100 percent from home isn’t as effective as claimed. Granted, it’s not for everyone, but I’d far rather be doing 80 percent of what I do remotely. Having direct experience of this I know that I’m much more productive.

I suspect that one of the biggest obstacles to greater flexibility with remote working is company culture, as some studies seem to suggest. Understandably, middle managers may feel their position is threatened, since there would be nobody in front of them to manage. However, I think quite the contrary. People still need to be managed, projects still need to be led and coordinated and decisions need to be taken by someone. An argument may be put forward along the lines of “There are too many distractions outside the office. How do I know you’re working?”

There will always be distractions in people’s lives – whether that’s in an office or elsewhere. Walk through the offices of any large company and I guarantee you can find people using the internet for their own personal use, chatting to colleagues, texting their other half or checking out Facebook on their phone.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting we should tolerate anyone turning up to the office, spending their day doing all of the aforementioned and expecting to get paid for it. There are levels of professional behavior that we all need to adhere to.

Let’s throw out a discussion point here. If it’s necessary to stand over employees to get results then why hire them in the first place? And if IT security issues is a legitimate justification not to work remotely, then perhaps someone senior should be looking at this, since the system is probably going to be compromised anyway, whether the staff connect in via Virtual Private Network (VPN) from home or log on in the office.

Going Forward

The technology required for today’s remote worker is more than adequate to meet their needs. Data security is paramount while fast and reliable internet connection is also without question. Though proprietary cloud services such as Dropbox have suffered their fair share of hacking headlines in the past, there are alternatives for data sharing. Large organizations with their own network (WAN) can be securely connected into from home by means of a dedicated VPN. 

For the dedicated self-employed homeworker, a few hundred pounds will set up a server within the cloud, with dual or even triple redundancy and massive data storage capacity. The cost of data storage has fallen tremendously in the last few years. I recall buying my first desktop PC 20 years ago, gleefully telling my friends that we had 6Gb of memory for something like £1,000. Now you can pick up 3Tb of storage for under £150 and connect it to your home network via your router. 

Despite all of this, there will still be clients that, for reasons of their own, will never allow their data to be in any kind of cloud server. This is absolutely fine, but it must be clear from the outset and the needs of the client must at all times be respected.

Fast internet connections with unlimited download capacities are now extremely cheap and are factored into most household budgets the same way as our electricity bills. Using this for working from home therefore makes the business of communicating anywhere in the world very cheap. For those of us on the move, the introduction of personal hotspots has been transformational. I can Skype, email and access data from anywhere that has a 4G connection, with download speeds of up to 55 Mbps. 

Reliable, fast internet access means we can chat to each other over Skype and see who we’re talking to. We can share our desktops, thus eliminating my frustrations of 15 years ago and enabling me to point to a drawing and say ‘it’s that bit, there….’.

Also falling is the cost of technical software. Providers of drafting software long ago cottoned onto the fact that not all their users are large corporations with huge IT budgets. They offered light versions of their software. There is even a completely free 2D drafting package that uses identical commands to its nearest rival. 

Analysis software providers are finally waking up to this as well and are beginning to offer pay-per-use licensing agreements. Others are beginning to look at licensing in the cloud and this brings exciting possibilities. Personally, I’m very excited by prospects such as these; however, for now I’ll settle for working with remote colleagues.

A-Squared Engineering Solutions uses all of the technology discussed here. We are a group of engineers who are geographically remote from each other, yet have over 15 years’ collective experience of working together. We recently completed a collaborative project with a number of other parties for SLLP134 Ltd. Working closely with them, we assisted in the development of their trademark product, the Offshore Production Buoy. 

A-Squared worked on our work package collaboratively, with a team spread between Hampshire, Tyneside and Aberdeen. We only ever physically met three or four times. The rest of the time we worked remotely, conferenced on Skype, feeding all our outputs back when required. The project was an excellent proving ground for the A-Squared model, showing that remote working on complex projects is perfectly do-able. Overall, the project was a very positive experience with successful delivery of outputs.

However, a key learning point from this experience was that face-to-face meeting is still crucial.

The one thing that technology cannot replace is human interaction. Our current technology tends to act as a barrier to the subtle nuances of body language, mood and eye contact that is necessary to build trust and healthy working relationships with our colleagues. It therefore adds value to any product or service that requires people to work together.

Other learning points identified were:

•  the ability to readily contact and communicate with each other was essential
•  the importance of clearly defined objectives and delivery milestones, vital in any engineering project, were magnified greatly when working remotely, to avoid wandering off at a tangent
•  productivity gains from remote working were substantial.

Where do we go from here?

The way we work is changing now, and we at A-Squared Engineering Solutions are excited to be at the forefront of this revolution. In the future, we may see office getting smaller as the requirement to sit large groups of engineers in the same building diminishes. The cost of technology will continue to fall, while at the same time new technology will continue to facilitate and enhance the growth of our collaborative capabilities. 

Companies that don’t embrace this new way, may experience difficulties attracting the talent they need to produce quality outputs, as more people demand greater control over their work/life balance. This in turn may impact their competitive edge. Data security will always be an issue, but will evolve with us to meet new threats. 

A-Squared is enthusiastically looking forward to the future and exploring new ideas inspired by our evolving technological capabilities. We hope to meet you on our journey. A-Squared Engineering Solutions is available to discuss naval architecture, structural design and analysis of offshore and marine structures. We can offer expertise in mooring analysis, structural analysis and stability to name a few. 

Andrew Robson is Founder of A-Squared Engineering Solutions.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.