Facetime versus Face-to-face time

Together, Vicky Watt-Smith (IARAN Communications Officer) and Leonie Le Borgne (IARAN Fellow) discuss the advantages and disadvantages to remote/flexible working. 

As we approach the half-way mark of 2018 (how did that happen?!) it’s becoming apparent that modern working is more flexible. Remote working is on the rise in the UK with a growth rate of a quarter of a million over the last decade. Data from the Office for National Statistics tells us that this is set to continue, with half of the UK workforce to work remotely, by 2020.  Why? How is this becoming possible?


Enter the internet and the Holy Grail that is WI-FI, allowing for constant connectivity, wherever you may be in the world. I work for the IARAN – a consortium of aid organisations and academics. We provide strategic foresight and analysis to the humanitarian sector. We have analysts across the globe and so we work remotely, which can be a strange phenomenon for new-starters. We utilise cloud-based technology daily to communicate with each other– not a day goes by without at least one message popping up in our Skype, Slack or WhatsApp groups! DropBox is our primary workspace, and the platform, built for collaborative working, allows synchronicity across all devices that we may have as a team. Utilising Microsoft Online means that multiple users can view and edit any one document at the same time, allowing all IARAN team members to have their say instantly, without needing to send multiple drafts back and forth.  

These systems make flexible working possible and allow adaptability to different work-styles (like if you’re a night owl and want to work through to the early hours), and in theory provide a better work/life balance, which is always a struggle. Without being connected to a single server, we can now continue to work whilst we wait at home for that parcel to be delivered, or for the boiler to be fixed. We can use space depending on what we need from it: whether we need peace and quiet for onerous tasks (expenses anyone?) that are impossible to complete in an open plan office, or to play your favourite music at ear piercing levels (unacceptable in any office!).


Of course, flexible working isn’t for everyone. Some people need a more structured environment to stay motivated and efficient. Others don’t like being distracted by ‘life admin’ (such as the weekly wash) and prefer to spatially separate their work and ‘play’ spaces. The other major factor to consider is the lack of social contact: some people thrive off a loud atmosphere and the creativity of others and get cabin fever when they work at home. Finally, there’s argument to be made that flexible working means working all the time – if it’s ok to work in your pyjamas, between laundry cycles, after dinner, when is it ok not to work?

Vicky :

This way of working is core to the IARAN, instilled in us all as we come on board. We have team members based at home as well as in our partner offices, and they can chop and change how they see fit. We trust that the work will continue to be done, regardless of location.

However, we have the added problem; we are all based around the world.

So we always make sure our team meets face to face annually – without fail. Time spent together, in the same place, is the crux of any team and ours is no different. When we are apart, we speak online every day. Moreover, we make ourselves readily available to each other and ensure that we never miss our monthly skype team calls. However, being together physically at last once a year is non-negotiable. These ‘retreats’ are key to the functioning and wellbeing of the team, and over the years we have uncovered some factors for success:

  • Be somewhere remote

  • Turn off all other work – choose to be present

  • Consecutive days – having people stay over a few nights, makes workshop time less tight, and allows for time to wind down.

  • Mix work and play – ensure time to get to know each other through non-work-related activities (mapominoes or an EASY hike)

  • Household chores – at least one meal to be made together (even breakfast counts!). If you really want to go to town on the team building exercises, then rotate ‘chefs’ every meal.


Team bonding is essential, especially within a new and small, albeit growing team, with the introduction of our IARAN Fellows (analysts and futurist colleagues interested in our work) to this year’s retreat. It is imperative to understand how people communicate and how they like to be communicated with, in order to be most effective. Furthermore, there is an expectation about attitude and commitment; this will not work unless every member of the team buys into the method created. That’s why it’s important to agree the rules of communication as early as possible; we put our communication methods to a vote on the last day of this year’s retreat – culminating in introducing Slack as our new platform for sharing work. It is a work in progress, but the platform provides us with a happy medium between social and work. This was a point raised by many, but its success will be determined by everyone, and every fellow is responsible for engaging and communicating regularly.


Though technology can never replace face-to-face working, and we would never advocate for this, it can ensure that remote working does not mean individual working. Here at the IARAN, we may all have individual roles, but we work collaboratively on every piece of work that we release. Collaboration is our mantra and like many before, and likely afterwards, we have learnt to embrace technology at the heart of our team spirit.