How do you feel about remote working? Given that more than 4.2 million Britons (14% of the workforce) regularly work remotely, and that the percentage of the office-based workforce that 'telecommute' is forecast to grow to 60% by 2022, it’s an inescapable question. Yet it seems very likely that your answer will vary depending on whether you are a remote worker or an office-based manager, as the debate over productivity, control and loyalty rages on.
One thing that remains clear, is that remote workers aren’t going anywhere. In the US, two decades of Gallup polls show us that the percentage of workers who have unchained themselves from their five-by-five foot air-conditioned corporate bubble has snowballed from 9% in 1995 to 37% last year. Despite continuing attempts by companies like Yahoo! – and just this month, IBM – to rein in the flexibility on offer, there’s no undoing progress.
For businesses that don't have the luxury of being all in one place, the challenge of connecting remote and field workers to the wider team is an important one. It can be the cornerstone of employee engagement and for the business it means that they are kept in line, in touch and in tune with best practice.
Many however, accept the reality that doing all of that is harder for remote workers. It’s harder to control someone when the means of interaction are limited solely to digital channels and it’s harder to trust the quality of processes that you can’t see. It’s that trust point that sits at the heart of a raft of fears that furrow the brows of employers all over the world. Specific concerns range from productivity and best practice on the one hand, right through to engagement, culture, values and loyalty on the other. Putting seemingly isolated workers at the heart of what it means to be an employee in company X can seem to be an unreachable goal. At least, that’s the concern.
Before we dive into how these challenges can be viewed, and what options businesses have for bringing remote employees in from the cold, lets first explore a little about what it’s really like to be a remote worker.
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of information on the experiences of telecommuters, or the companies they work for. For starters, one thing that’s hard to dispute is that they’re getting the work done.
Eighty-six percent of workers say they are more productive when working remotely, and, perhaps more importantly, two thirds of managers agree.
Looking beyond productivity at popularity, it’s not a niche topic, in fact everybody wants it. In the past, remote working has been pigeonholed as kowtowing to the whims of the overindulged millennial generation, and while 68% of millennial job seekers do want a remote working option, the idea is equally as popular at the other end of the spectrum, with 74% of older workers wanting flexibility and 34% wanting to work entirely from home.
Speaking more directly to HR concerns, remote working has some very compelling answers. A Stamford University study in 2015 found that offering remote working reduced employee turnover by 50%. In a separate report by PGI, 80% of workers reported improved morale from home working (not to mention 69% lower absenteeism). What’s more, if culture and loyalty are things you hold dear, you might be surprised to hear that remote workers feel happier. According to TINYpulse, when asked to assess their happiness on a scale of 1-10, remote workers scored 8.10, compared to 7.42 for their office-based peers.
It seems that there are a diverse range of advantages to making remote working a success, and so it’s easy to get a handle on just how important the topic is. Indeed, according to the World Economic Forum, the trend towards flexibility is “one of the biggest drivers of transformation” in the modern workplace. In other words, it is, and should be, a challenge. But like any challenge there will be those who fall and those who thrive, and as the topic works its way higher on the business agenda, the spoils of success will grow.
It’s fair to assume that those companies that target themselves on making remote working work, are more likely to be in the “thrive” camp than those who say no. So what does best practice look like?
Mobile technology is already exceptional. It allows workers to access almost any software on their remote device, meaning that keeping a geographically diverse company together in one community is ever more achievable. Whether remote workers have the same physical set up as their in-office peers or chose to provide their own tools has become less important, and even field workers who may be forced to operate mostly from small, portable devices are finding that they are being catered for.
The pace of change in this field is unyielding, and in a matter of months the mobile potential will have evolved again, but already previously unknown capabilities like editing Word and Excel documents live on a smartphone, and sharing collaborative content between devices, are becoming ubiquitous. Functionality is no longer the primary concern, but a huge hurdle still remains to be overcome: how to make distant workers feel like part of the business.
As an employee, unless you work in a microbusiness, a new start-up or a boutique agency, the chances of you knowing everyone in your company are exceptionally slim. The chances of you knowing more than a handful of people outside of your core team aren’t much better. So why is sharing an office so important? If you’re Red Bull, then it means you get to use slides instead of stairs, and that’s pretty cool, but you’re probably not Red Bull.
Really, what holds any company together is a combination of shared values, objectives, targets, culture, ambition and the occasional bit of team building. Almost none of that is reliant on being in the same building as your colleagues. Instead, it’s a question of how a company communicates with its staff: the personalities of key figures, their credibility and the way the key messages, ideas and initiatives are shared throughout the organisation – very little of which changes when employees are out of the office.
The more pressing issue is that so many companies don’t have well-honed internal communication set-ups, and so they fall back on the proximity of employees, and a network of micro relationships between those who sit near each other, to prop up their culture instead. For example, what percentage of your internal communication still relies on email? If it’s more than about 20% then that’s something to pay urgent attention to. With the functionality, ubiquity and ease of social intranets – their information feeds, messenger systems and organisational aids – booming productivity and team building are just two of a long list of advantages that transcend the divide between in-office staff and remote workers.
If remote working feels like a challenge that is harming your business, the chances are it’s a symptom of inadequate or poorly implemented internal communications infrastructure, not remote working itself.