A World Beyond Telecommute: The Digital Wanderer

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Location-free living and working. That’s the dream for a lot of people. For a long time I thought my dream was just to be able to work mostly from home – and that works for me since I live somewhere that’s like a dream in terms of just feeling contentment oozing from every pore almost every minute of every day. Idyllic countryside with a few modern comforts in the peaceful respite of Sweden. But the urge to pack up and spend a few months in Uruguay or spending a year in Australia … or Turkey… or wherever… that’s tempting to lifelong nomads like myself. I feel content and rooted, but the wanderlust never quite leaves.

I have written a lot and frequently about employers being flexible enough to allow employees to work from home. By extension, what’s the difference if you are “at home” or on the road – staying for long stretches in different places? Granted, it can be difficult if you have a regular, full-time job and need to liaise with people on a daily basis (and thus must have a guaranteed stable internet connection). But more and more, this is becoming a moot point.

I am not alone in my feeling that this lifestyle is possible. There are in fact a lot of people out there doing it – living it – and writing about it, giving the rest of us inspiration and/or envy on the way. But they are living proof that this lifestyle is possible and sustainable. The infrastructure to support this lifestyle is a bit ad hoc still but as more people choose to live with this flexibility, the supporting structures making it possible will improve.

Some online resources for budding/curious potential digital nomads:

Digital Nomads

Digital Nomad Podcast

Digital Nomad Life

And my favorite: Never Ending Voyage

Let go of the fear – just go! Loads of barriers prevent us from choosing to break free of the 9-to-5 life, but there is another way.

Geographer” – Sydney Wayser

The changing workscape: Flex-work options – What if we’re just not doing it right?

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Working in an environment that does not invite or encourage an ethos of working where and how one is most productive, it can be difficult to believe that there are companies with flexibility in their DNA. Leaving the flex nature of the small- to medium-size tech enterprises, it did not seem like it would be that vast a cultural chasm to cross because we’re all working in this fast-paced, tech-driven world, aren’t we?

Truth is – no, we aren’t. Tech companies live and die by the technology. A conservative, traditional company operating in selling commodities does not believe it needs to be on the fast-track to digital change (either in how it does business/sells or in how it works internally). For all the grandiose, pie-in-the-sky talk about embracing technology, change and finding new ways of working, leaving that comfortable zone where one has “always had success” doing business is still how things are plugging along. Fundamentally, there is a disparity between the talk of change and innovation and the walk of eschewing change, putting up obstacles and viewing flexibility with suspicion.

It comes down to communication, on some level – first, a company (whatever its size, business or take on flex work) needs to go beyond lip services regardless of what they want. If they want employees to innovate and work where they feel best or chained to their desks 8 to 5, they need to make that clear in an honest and clear way. And employees need to make their needs known as well. Many companies have flex-work policies on the books, but people are afraid to take advantage, fearing being perceived as “not dedicated to their work”.

But, as a Virgin/YouGov survey predicts, we may be moving close to the almost office-free world in the next 20 years. It would be better and easier to start confronting the challenges and barriers now. Starting with the aforementioned and all-important practice of communication. Can we not shake off the stigma of flexible work and be clear about what “flexible work” means and what employers and employees expect of it?

The partial answer, at least for today, is: We’re not there yet. An apt answer for flex and telework (as well as for relationships in the undefined, “budding” stage!).

As with most things, I could ask whether there is actually a right or wrong way to introduce and undertake some of the flexible work options that are out there. Are we doing it right? No, probably not yet. As stated, we’re not there yet in terms of every company jumping on board looking for options – but we are at a stage that most companies have some of their workforce that could be offered flexible options – and the benefits go both ways.

“Flexible work” could mean a host of different things. Telecommuting, near and dear to my heart, alone has tremendous potential for changing the workscape as we know it today. A couple of ZDNet articles grabbed my attention for their focus on bigger societal benefits (not emphasizing the benefits to the individual or even the economic benefits to the companies taking advantage of remote or virtual work). One article made the point: Working at home is going green. The commute is reduced/eliminated – the environmental impact of that could be huge. Right now there are well over 200 million Americans making a daily commute. The second article discussed how policy-level decisions to support telecommuting would incentivize business growth. In this era of lost jobs and economic uncertainty, it does seem like policy change (especially with regard to making taxation more transparent and easy to handle for small home-based businesses, as an example – or making clear deductions possible for those who work from home offices and forgo the commute) would go a long way toward changing the dialogue and figuring out how to get flexwork going  — the right way and for real.

The changing workscape: Why is virtual work stigmatized while internet dating no longer is?

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Does “flexibility stigma” exist?

Apparently so; it exists when it comes to work.

A similar kind of stigma used to exist when it came to online/internet dating. A CNN article highlights the fact that fewer than one percent of Americans were using the internet to meet dates in 1992 – and by 2009, almost a quarter of couples were meeting online. The Guardian reports, based on a University of Rochester study, that online dating is the second most common way Americans start relationships today.

My guess is the numbers may even be higher than what the CNN article reports; the stigma is virtually gone, but I think people probably still underreport their online-love exploration.

Online dating became broadly experimental, then accepted, and then mainstream. People (almost) proudly talk about how they met on OkCupid or Match.com or whatever the flavor-of-the-month or niche dating site is. The process has moved a lot like the bell curve of technology adoption. Online dating started with innovators and early adopters – I imagine that those who adopted early were tech-oriented people but also possibly the kind of people who would benefit from the barriers and anonymity of online interaction. (Hey, not taking any shots – I am a wee bit techie, a wee bit nerdy and a wee bit shy myself.)  Eventually a wider audience could see the benefits of doing a bit of pre-date vetting, getting to know people a bit better before meeting and being exposed to a broader array of people than one could meet in everyday life – particularly if they are busy people tired of trying to make some kind of connection with drunk people in bars. (Of course that assumes that the other people engaged in online dating are like-minded souls. That’s where the diffusion of innovation curve, in this case, does not work too well, especially in the early stages, in the early adopters’ favor.)

Okay, so online dating is not a panacea that answers all dating ills, and in fact there are some psychologists who claim that there are pitfalls (the aforementioned CNN article makes that clear, citing that online daters may be susceptible to warped outlooks and expectations, relying too much on vague profiles and contributing to a sense that one can be too picky or judgmental.

The Guardian article cited above also explores the idea that people online are looking for different things – and perhaps deceiving each other about it. There are some other great looks at how online dating is unsatisfying and can never really give people an accurate idea of whether they will really click with someone or not. Too true:

“…online dating sites assume that people are easy to describe on searchable attributes.  They think that we’re like digital cameras, that you can describe somebody by their height and weight and political affiliation and so on. But it turns out people are much more like wine.  That when you taste the wine, you could describe it, but it’s not a very useful description.  But you know if you like it or don’t.  And it’s the complexity and the completeness of the experience that tells you if you like a person or not.  And this breaking into attributes turns out not to be very informative.”

Personally, I would also argue about the creation of the illusion of endless choice – related to the point about pickiness and judgment made in the CNN article. People also don’t always know what they want – or need. But that is totally beside the point here. It’s a complex thing, like relationships themselves.

The question is – how has online dating become accepted, acceptable and the de facto thing to do while something totally above-board like online, virtual work isn’t? It’s not like for like and may not be comparable, but I suppose the difference is the line between what is personal and what is professional – and in the professional realm, more is at stake. On the other hand, do people pay a certain price for taking steps (personal or professional) that fall under one of these “stigma umbrellas”? That is, is the online dater somehow limiting herself to just that pool of people willing to be online and to those who can craft a profile that speaks to what she (thinks she) is looking for? Is the person who takes advantage of “workplace flexibility” also being stigmatized at work – not advancing in her career, perhaps – because she has asked or opted for a more flexible arrangement?

The worker seeking flexibility in her own life may in fact be seen by the employer as less flexible and less committed and therefore less “promotable”. While it may seem that women would be disproportionately affected, some studies show that men may be most adversely affected by asking for flexibility. Basically there is a lose-lose for both men and women who aim to work flexibly:

“There can be a stigma for remote or blended schedules, however: parents who want to be more available to their kids may opt for this, and that usually means women. These remote employees may not be as available as someone in the office, may appear to be slacking off, and may reduce their opportunities for promotion. Whether or not those things are true does not matter if there is a perception of truth to them.”

This only covers how some employers see flexible workers – it does not cover the whole concept of flexible work. Flexible work itself, regardless of the person doing it, invites all kinds of stigma about the kinds of workers who want to work at home (or without workspace restrictions) and the quality of work and productivity that can come of it:

“The fact working from home is often less pressured is probably why 19% of those asked, felt home workers take advantage of having no boss around and slack off.

Yet, when you look at the 2.8m home-based entrepreneurs who are running businesses from their kitchen tables and turning over an extra 284bn for the UK economy, you start to recognise that home-workers can be just as productive and even more driven.

Lastly, giving employees the option to work from home can make good business sense in other ways too. It can help a business save money because it means it won’t have to fork out for a huge office and there won’t be as much wear and tear on the office utilities.”

I have had the same questions – how is it, if I have successfully operated my own content business from my home for 15 years, that a corporation who chose to hire me as a regular employee would not be able to value the productivity and experience gained in those 15 office-less years? Imagine this: Microsoft in Finland a National Remote Working Day, asking employers to think about the benefits of remote working, including shorter commute times and further reaching environmental benefits. Events like this are unfortunately rare enough that the idea of virtual work may still be holding businesses back.

My political platform: Bringing back capes, gloves, postage stamps, anti-hypocrisy and flexible work options!

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It’s another one of those random days where random thoughts are weaseling their way into my brain too fast to keep track of them.

I’m not sorry we loved, but I hope I didn’t keep you too long.

First of all, I overthink. All the time. All weekend in between working and then taking breaks from that work to do other work, I was beating myself up over the realization that it is always just when you ease into a comfort level, feeling like you can let your guard down, that you are at your most vulnerable, a victim to be gutted. You know, gutted and chopped into pieces, not unlike a poor, hapless young giraffe minding his own business in a Copenhagen zoo (and see below). Trust me.

In other news (or non-news), what the hell is wrong with Fox News and other conservative talking heads? I cannot come up with words – nothing that has not already been said. They have started blabbing about how free healthcare disincentivizes working. Who says it best? Why, Jon Stewart, of course!

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-february-6-2014/terror-on-bulls–t-mountain

Writing (oh so seamless the segue) about disincentives to work and purported laziness, I was heartened to see a series of articles from Virgin on the future of flexwork (Richard Branson is a big supporter of flexible work solutions). Three cheers! It’s one thing for me to bang my own pots and pans on the subject of flexible, remote and virtual work (only I hear the ceaseless clanging – and maybe a handful of other folks who happen upon this blog). It is another thing entirely when someone as respected and well-known as Richard Branson puts his weight behind this flexibility.

The website covers different aspects of flexible work – which can include remote work, shared locations, next-gen workspaces and enabling “intrapreneurship”. Be still my heart.

Of course, another aspect of flexible work, as I have learned since the dawn of my professional life, is doing the most flexible kind of work there is (and that means you will get a lot of flexibility but you are going to have to be equally flexible in kind – and sometimes to your own detriment): freelancing. I find these days that when I apply for jobs that are not ideal for me but my skill set matches some other need a company has, I get calls on occasion offering me freelance projects, and I cannot complain.

On a slightly tangential note, I will never get used to how potential employers in Scandinavia, in formal interview settings, often use the word “shit” in interview conversation. This must be a failure to understand that “shit” is not quite the casual profanity that they imagine it to be. (It makes me laugh.)

As for the music and magic of hypocrisy, who embodies it better than my favorite punching bag, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! disaster fame? The Virgin remote work segment highlights the hypocrisy and head-scratching quality of Mayer’s decision to end distance-work options for her employees (“How odd that the head of a tech company that provides online communication tools doesn’t see the irony in that statement?”). Mayer has become the lightning rod for this issue, really. One article I read questioned the fairness of piling all the blame on Mayer when other large corporations scaled back or eliminated their distance work options at the same time (e.g. Best Buy). The hypocrisy of it – the real rub – is precisely what the Virgin article on supporting remote work points out – a tech company supposedly at the forefront (or wanting to believe it is still at the forefront) of innovation and online communication is taking the workplace back to horse-and-buggy days when most of the tech world is, I don’t know, driving a Tesla or taking a high-speed train.

Another nod to hypocrisy, even if not an entirely matching overlap, is the recent decision of a zoo in Copenhagen, Denmark to kill a perfectly healthy young giraffe in its care and feed it to the zoo’s lions. I posted something about this on my Facebook wall, which sparked an immediate argument between two people who are strangers across the world from each other. One argued that those of us who were lamenting the giraffe’s senseless death were hypocrites who cannot handle how nature works when it’s shown to us with transparency. While I can appreciate the argument on its surface, the bottom line is – this happened in a ZOO, not the wild. This took place, apparently, in front of zoo visitors (the killing and the feeding pieces to lions). Yeah, if a family went on safari somewhere or were out in the wild, maybe “nature” and its transparency would be expected. In the zoo? Not so much. The zoo has defended its decision and now is paying an unfortunate price (I saw on the news that the zoo’s employees are receiving death threats now).

Back to the flexwork thing – all the articles come down to one thing: trust. Flexwork is possible when you have trust and no need to micromanage. You would also think we could trust a zoo not to kill a juvenile giraffe, and maybe once upon a time, people would have thought Marissa Mayer would not take a giant tech company back to Little House on the Prairie.

The changing workscape: New frontiers in virtual office possibilities

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Given the fact that people do have different work styles that lend themselves to working in different ways – and that workplaces are constantly paying lip service to the idea that we have to infuse our entire organizations with innovative ways of working, and we finally have the mostly seamless technology options to make this feasible – we are in a unique place to encourage virtual work and home offices now more than ever.

Everything is affected by the interplay and interconnectedness of technology and our work lives. Why would workers accept being forced to be chained to a desk in an office – or conversely, why would employed limit their talent pool to the immediate vicinity? Especially in global companies that seek budgetary solutions to increasingly competitive and austere business landscapes. Not every employee is going to want to work remotely all the time, and not every job or project is ideal for this set up. But being flexible enough to see where efficiencies can be gained, employees can be happier and more productive, where costs, sometimes significant, can be saved and even semi-unrelated matters, such as increasingly long and taxing commutes to and from offices and traffic gridlock can be reduced, is the first step toward a new “frontier”. Looking at the way a remote worker thinks, or how the workforce thinks about remote work, it is clear that the trend leans toward a more flexible future. And would give people the sense that they had greater freedom and more control and balance in their lives.

How workers think about remote work

How workers think about remote work

The change is coming – it’s happening – but it is slow. When Marissa Mayer made the controversial decision to call the sheep back to the farm (her Yahoo! workers were told that telecommuting was strictly verboten and were required to return full-time to the office – a topic I cannot seemingly shut up about), it seemed like the most backward move, and the tech media dissected and analyzed this perplexing choice to death. A Forbes writer captured my thoughts in a nutshell:

Some research published by the MIT Sloan Management Review suggests that bosses are roughly nine percent more likely to consider an employee dependable if you spend time at the office. I know that was the consensus when I entered the workforce thirty years ago, but I thought we were a little more enlightened now.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine sent me an article written by Robert Pozen for the Harvard Business Review. This study conducted by Kimberly Elsbach found (agreeing with the MIT study), after interviewing 39 corporate managers, that they all generally felt like employees who spent more time in the office were more dedicated, more hardworking, and more responsible. These guys sound just like my dad.” (Emphasis in italics is mine.)

The writer goes on to argue the same points I am always making – as a knowledge worker, it is not like we are ever really “turned off”. The idea of a 40-hour-work-week and the whole 8 to 5 mentality just does not exist. The writer continues, “When manager(s) judge their employees’ work by the time they spend at the office, they impede the development of productive work habits.” He goes on to question whether Mayer, in making her unpopular decision, ignored research on the subject. It seems to me that Mayer ignores data and research all the time since taking the helm at Yahoo! Her choices, as I write about ad nauseam, seem driven by some sort of strange gut instinct (that is not well-tuned) than by data, research or good advice.

What really gets to the heart of it though is an article called “A new workplace manifesto: In praise of freedom, time, space and working remotely”, which covers the full range of benefits of telecommuting, pitting them against the downsides of the traditional work model (e.g. long commutes that lead tomisery, associated with an increased risk for obesity, insomnia, stress, neck and back pain, high blood pressure and other stress-related ills like heart attacks and depression, and even divorce”; the uncontrolled level of interruption and idle conversation, useless meetings and so on once you get to the office; go home in another hell commute. Go home, repeat.). As the article points out, it is drudgery. And the author, David Heinemeier Hansson, is in a position to know. As the creator of popular project management tool Basecamp and web framework Ruby on Rails and a partner in the software company 37signals (renamed/reinvented recently under the Basecamp name) – all active parts of a busy virtual-work future, he has his finger right on the pulse of this aspect of the changing workscape. He and co-author Jason Fried have captured a great deal of this – and addressed many of my complaints and dreams – in a book called Remote: Office Not Required. (Recommended!) You can also check out remote job opportunities on WeWorkRemotely.

The article gets to the point I have been trying to make – the drudgery of the surroundings of work is not to be confused with the work itself. “It’s time to reject the false dichotomy between work and luxury. See, none of this is about escaping the intellectual stimulation of work itself. Work is not the enemy we’re trying to outrun. We’re simply running from those accidental circumstances.”

I love my work, but I know I have always been better at it when I have the focus and freedom to do it from my home office. No commute, no being exposed to all the office illnesses that spread like wildfire, no major drains on my concentration. Naturally this works because I am primarily a writer and need the focus. Maybe someone who is a project manager who has many stakeholders to manage would have a more difficult time of it, especially in a tradition-driven, traditional industry. But this too is changing. Productivity solutions and software are making all-virtual companies a reality.

Apart from having to sell the idea to the more staid and conservative workplaces, there is still a kind of stigma attached to the idea of virtual work, as though it is inherently scammy, “But it’s still early days and it’s still “weird.” Like Internet dating was in 1997. Remote working still reminds most people of either scammy signs at the side of the road that promise, “$1,000/day to work from home!” (without mentioning what the work is exactly) or social hermits who never leave their house or put clothes on before noon.” (I love the reference to “like Internet dating in 1997”. If we have gotten past the stigma there, why can’t the same be said of something productive like work?)

That’s the Good News” – John Grant

The Changing Workscape: Working the Flexible Way

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Study after study, survey after survey, all the research shows that professional workers are willing to forgo a lot, particularly in terms of pay/compensation, in exchange for a flexible work situation.

Many companies offer flexible work arrangements – however slowly (and it is slow, almost imperceptible, according to the Families and Work Institute’s (FWI) 2012 National Study of Employers Report, which states that less than three percent of salaried employees work mainly from home while 90 percent of job seekers state that “flexibility” is one of the most important factors in their search), the trend is moving in that direction. This is not true across the board, of course, and probably depends quite a lot on the company, the particular job and all kinds of internal factors. Many companies allow employees to negotiate flexible hours or work-at-home days, particularly once they have worked in a company for long enough to prove their worth and responsibility. I have seen this work in my favour in most of my professional situations, especially working in Scandinavia. FWI data may support the idea that the job market and its employers are not bending over backwards to offer flexible options to employees, but I’d argue that – so far – it is simply not something that has been accepted en masse or as de rigueur. Flexible arrangements are often negotiated today on an individual level – but eventually we will hopefully see companies begin to embrace the demand for flexibility – the talent out there is hungry for it.

A Today.com article cites a 2012 Mom Corps survey that explains that almost half of working adults would choose a lower salary/pay cut in order to gain more flexibility. Just over 50 percent went so far as to state that they would consider starting their own businesses to facilitate the kind of freedom and flexibility they value.

Over on the Officevibe website, there’s an article discussing the top ten reasons why a company’s employee engagement program will fail – high atop the list is the “lack of focus on intrinsic motivation”. This aligns with the idea that employees are motivated from within by factors that are often much more complex – and possibly easier to work with – than money. Virtually every study or article will highlight that monetary compensation is important – but it is not what gets most professional and creative people out of bed in the morning. (Needless to say this article has a lot of good points about what hinders employee engagement.)

The findings are further echoed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and its study in 2012, as reported, for example, in the Financial Times and The American Interest blog: flexible work arrangements were the number one employee priority.

And while it’s clear that employees are asking for flexwork and would benefit from it, there is also a very clear business case for it – employee happiness and satisfaction leading to employee retention, higher productivity and being able to choose and keep the cream of the crop in terms of employee talent. A 2012 Forbes article champions these same employee morale-building-and-boosting principles but points out that allowing for flexibility is not technically a benefit the company offers to employees because it actually costs no money and can end up saving the company money – directly and indirectly.

With surveys, data and studies that go back for years showing both the tangible benefits and the demand for flexwork, I struggle still to understand why adoption has been so slow in the real world.

The Changing Workscape: The Future I Thought Would Be Remote

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When I first moved to Iceland at the dawn of the 2000s, the only job I could find was one that did not have an actual office. All the employees worked from home and on occasion, if needed, went to clients’ offices. Even after I briefly moved to Seattle, I continued this work because the time difference actually worked to our advantage (end of European business day meant an easy handover to me on the Pacific coast – and I would have something ready by the next European morning). With all the benefits and convenience technology enabled, this kind of work was easy. I couldn’t be blamed for thinking that this way of working would become commonplace, adopted everywhere, within a decade or so. Sure, some kinds of work are not suited for distance work – but many are obvious fits (like content development, writing, programming, etc.). Even some fields that are less obvious, with some adaptation, can also be good fits for part-time remote work because they force companies and employees to learn flexibility and to work in different ways.

Today I work in the most staid, traditional environment I have ever worked in, and it’s quite suffocating for those reasons. The idea is hammered into our heads – daily – that we need to embrace innovation and new ways of working into every single aspect of our work. A lot of lip service is paid to “changing how we work” but where is the evidence of this?

An article about remote work and corporate staffing cited a Genesis Research Associates study that states 76 percent of respondents to a survey within more than 7,000 companies plan remote hiring as part of their long-term staffing strategies (as opposed to short-term, temporary solutions). If this is so, who are these companies and where is the actual evidence of this?

To me, the obvious move would be to restructure our thinking about being in an office, spending too much time in meetings and not trying to find more streamlined ways to do these things and thus save time. I have looked at my own job and realize that I could do 90 percent of it from home. There are some meetings and some discussions that are valuable to have face to face, but I am finding that the insistence on meeting face to face is more about laziness, i.e. people can just explain in a half-assed way what they want, and I will get it. If I am outside the office, they could do that in a phone call, but the better thing to do – since we always talk about this as well – is to enforce a policy that if you are going to ask for content creation, you need to know in detail what you are asking for… so people need to write a complete brief outlining their requirements. I don’t need to sit in meetings for that (unless I am actually contributing to the development of the brief itself).

My point is – in 15 years, I have basically traveled backwards. I have much less freedom and far more micromanaging/expectation that I be seen at my desk than ever before. In terms of how I envisioned the future of work, this is not it. And I find myself asking every day: WHY?

No article in 2013 dealt with the issue of remote work and working from home without mentioning Yahoo!’s CEO Marissa Mayer and her controversial decision to forbid working at home. Some companies followed suit, others came out explaining why they allow either part- or full-time work (some companies are mostly virtual and always have been).

Mayer justified her decision in a variety of ways, stating, “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

Plenty of tech companies have criticized this all-or-nothing hardline approach. Banning telecommuting entirely seems short-sighted and totally inflexible, particularly to backpedal when it has been something that employees had an option to do in the past. It’s possible that creativity and innovation come from working together, but anyone who ever works in roles that require concentration and focus will probably agree that being able to work from home and tune out all the extraneous noise is priceless.

None of this is to say that enterprising individuals don’t have quite a lot of options available to them – some online platforms have sprung up and are quite successful at bringing together work, demand for talent/labor and technology. Elance and oDesk (which recently merged) are good examples of this – on-demand talent, a marketplace allowing people to bid on jobs and work flexibly. But you’ve got to be on your game and monitoring what’s available all the time, which is fine if you’re relying solely on this. But if you are not actively using Elance all the time, it’s not like you are building up a profile that future employers can look to.

The point of this is just to say – you could always find clients willing to do freelance, distance arrangements because it’s cheaper – no salary or benefits, no equipment, no office space – really nothing except a one-off payment and maybe a bit of their time to educate you about their expectations and deliverables.

Finding a full-time, regular job at a regular company that operates as flexibly is a different matter. But why? What is holding everyone back?

The future of work, which I thought would be remote, is remote – in that it feels like it is never going to happen.