person doing alone work in front of computer
During the last 12 months many people have worked remotely and at the same time being almost completely shut off from social life because of the risk of spreading the virus.

One year with distance work – lessons to be learned and future concerns

Mid-March last year, most of University of Gothenburg staff started to work from home. A few days before that, the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared the covid-19 outbreak as a pandemic. As a consequence, restrictions were applied on a global scale and people around the world started to change their behaviors with new moving patterns and – if possible – distance work.

What has been learned over the last year about remote work. And what insights can existing research on remote work provide us with for the future?

Interview with Aleksandre Asatiani, senior lecturer in informatics and specialized in remote work. He is now leading a research project on sustainable remote working environments.

What is a sustainable remote working environment?

– Until the start of the pandemic the research about remote work implied that it was something exceptional reserved for specific industries. For example, software developers got to work remotely in a temporary arrangement. Researchers on the subject talked about virtual teams and cross-country collaborations. That was the definition of remote work.

Aleksandre Asatiani explains over Zoom that before last year remote work was to a large extend discussed as a sort of future working environment. Nobody had a realistic expectation that people all around the world all of a sudden would change to remote work in all kinds of different areas.

Aleksandre Asatiani
Aleksandre Asatiani is researcher in informatics and specialized in distance work.

Now, one year living with restrictions and forced home work, he has started a research project where he wants to understand what the challenges are for creating a sustainable remote work environment. Meaning, an environment that we maintain for a long time, without a clear beginning or end, in a socially, economically and physically sustainable way.

What are the biggest challenges for creating sustainable remote work?

– In many ways University of Gothenburg´s switch to remote work last year was quite a success. If somebody said that the university is going to switch fully to remote work over the course of a month, people would have said that no; it will be a disaster and the whole university educational system will collapse. But we did a pretty good job managing to carry out research, teaching, administrative matters and grant application processes.

At the same time, he is concerned about the students and their health in the long term. Some students struggled to keep up as teaching changed and moved online. And more evidences of other problems started to show when student’s wellbeing was affected due to not meeting fellow students and being able to socialize, nor study together.

There have also been discussions about university staff being more stressed about work compare to before. Some people are being overworked because of the remote situation when lots of work falls into their hands.

According to Aleksandre Asatiani there is also the opposite problem where people actually are underworked, which also is a problem because they may feel being invisible and lose motivation if they don't have any important tasks to carry out.

This transition to remote work just happened whether we wanted or not

– This transition to remote work just happened whether we wanted or not, but then to keep it up in a sustainable way and make all staff benefit from it is the issue here.

How can we make people benefit from distance work?

– One of the problems is that we don't have established structures of working remotely and how to distribute tasks properly. Another key factor with the pandemic is that we have to work remotely and at the same time being almost completely shut off from social life because of the risk of spreading the virus. We cannot balance our remote work with other important things in life, such as socializing and meeting friends and family.

How to ensure both worker wellbeing and productivity while working from home. What are the obstacles for ensuring that?

– When we talk about being productive, we need to talk about staying well. It is a matter of finding balance where you have more freedom, but also know how to use that freedom to actually benefit from it.

Aleksandre Asatiani explains that it is in many ways paradoxical. On one hand, people working from home have a lot of flexibility when they don't need to commute and be in places at a particular hour.

On the other hand, people working from home become their own managers compared to being in the office. And that can lead to overworking because it's difficult to separate work and non-work environments.

– We have done office work for decades. We know how it is done, it is both good and bad, but at least we know how to navigate within it. But working from home, especially at this scale, we just don't know how to do it. We don't know where to stop and how to use that flexibility in a beneficial way.  

In your project, you're talking about how distance work affects people differently. What do you mean by that?

– There can be different set of inequalities between the different groups of people, an obvious example would be about gender inequality in terms of parental responsibilities. Studies from different countries show that mothers tend to spend more time with childcare in a remote work setting.

Aleksandre Asatiani explains that if both the father and the mother working from home, research shows that the mother has less uninterrupted time to work, compared to the father.

– That can have an effect on their career and on their work performance, especially in times of the pandemic when schools and child care facilities may not be available to the same extend as before.

The trend with dynamic action-based offices where people float around finding new spaces to work at every day – will that disappear considering future spread of viruses?

– I would be surprised if there is no debate about this, because for a year it has been revealed to us the importance of social distancing when being ill or having a cold.

Aleksandre Asatiani predicts that this might put pressure on the architects behind big open spaces and sharing office equipment. At the same time, those offices are cost efficient to the employers because it's easier and cheaper to build one big room than many individual offices.

– But even before the pandemic we could read about flexible offices and how bad they were for productivity. We might have gone a little bit too far with that idea.

Can University of Gothenburg, as a public state university, learn anything from tech giants such as Spotify or Twitter who has decided they will let employees work from wherever they want even after the pandemic?

– In some ways, the university have been more advanced with remote work, compared to many private enterprises in terms that a lot of work has traditionally been done on an individual level, at least on the academic side. Research could even before the pandemic be quite lonely and wasn't depended on people being in the same office.

In general, Aleksandre Asatiani thinks office versus distance work is a discussion that the university needs to have after the pandemic. It is important, he says, to evaluate what has happened and see how we can carry out our mission in the best possible way, adding flexibility and at the same time make it more structured.

Aleksandre Asatiani
Aleksandre Asatiani.
Photo: Peter Larsson

How do you cope with homework yourself, any secret advices?

– Setting up routines and structures has been key for me. I usually stick to my normal working hours even though I could do most of my work at any hour. But I decided that I wanted to get into this routine doing work in a specific place at a specific time, every day.

He shuts off his email and Teams-app in the end of the day, not having the temptation to check e-mails all the time.

– It does not mean that working from home needs to be too formal, during past year I have participated in meetings and chaired conference sessions in my sweatpants. And I think that's a great perk of working from home.

What are your hopes and concerns for when the pandemic is over in relation to homework?

– The big part has been the breaking of myths that particular jobs cannot be done remotely. Or that we definitely need to fly people from all around the world for a particular meeting, because there is no other way to do it. Many of our pre-existing thoughts about distance work over the last year basically proved not to be true.

Many of our pre-existing thoughts about distance work over the last year basically proved not to be true.

– I hope we will retain a feeling that we can do things in a different way. That will allow us to be more creative in terms of how we design a future work model. At the same time, I also hope that employers don’t take advantage of the situation and the fact that it's a lot easier to overwork people when they work remotely.

He is concerned that remote work doesn't becomes a trend where managers forces work to be remotely whether it's needed or not, just because it's possible.

– We have to be reasonable about it, because remote work can definitely have many advantages, but it's not for every situation or for everybody.

Aleksandre Asatiani miss his office and his colleagues. Once university staff are allowed to go back to the office he will spend a lot of time there.

– Personally, I did get a better idea on what can be done in the office and what can be done remotely. Especially on the teaching side, it taught me quite a lot how teaching can be structured from a distance. It doesn't mean that I will switch to online teaching only, but there are many lessons that can be learned.