The workforce is changing and the way we work is evolving, too.
One result is that some of us never go to an office. We collaborate with co-workers across the globe and multiple time zones without meeting face-to-face. We work from home, shared workspaces or coffee shops. We can even work from the beach if we want to (although that’s more of a dream than reality).
Remote work, also known as telecommuting, is on the rise in the United States and shows no sign of slowing down. Generally, it includes any profession that allows people to work from home all or part of the time, but excludes those who are self-employed, such as freelancers.
In 2017, 4.7 million U.S. employees (3.4% of the workforce) worked from home at least half of the time, a 159% increase since 2005, according to Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. More than a trend, distributed workforces seem to be the wave of the future.
“I think we’ll stop trying to name it and it will just become the way we work,” Lister says.
The popularity of remote work is also increasing globally, says Laurel Farrer, founder of the Remote Work Association and CEO of Distribute Consulting. The association, which offers virtual networking and roundtable events, has 350 members worldwide that work in tech, e-commerce, staffing and other industries.
Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Nicholas Bloom told a TEDxStanford audience in 2017 that working from home has “tremendous potential,” largely because of the internet. He noted that people worked from home as farmers, artists and craftspeople until the Industrial Revolution, which introduced factories and offices.
A confluence of factors, including globalization, automation, technology, the so-called gig economy – people working job-to-job with little security – and increasing use of contract workers are disrupting traditional workplace structures.
Bloom and other telecommuting champions believe traditional workplaces are antiquated.
“We’re hugely passionate about remote work and believe it will be a paradigm shift similar to, if not greater than, industrialization,” says Amir Salihefendic, CEO of Twist, a cloud-based team collaboration platform that has a 50-member workforce in more than 25 countries.
U.S. remote workers can be found in a number of industries, but are prevalent in professional, scientific and technical services, according to a 2017 telecommuting report from Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs. The top three occupations for telecommuters are management, office/administrative and sales, the report found.
Telecommuting options are more than twice as common at companies that have over 500 employees than those with fewer than 100 workers, the report showed. The greatest growth in remote work is at companies with 100 to 500 employees. Boulder, Colorado, has the highest concentration of telecommuters in the U.S., with 8.5% of its workforce working from home at least half of the time. Big cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas, are on par with the national average telecommuting rate of 2.9%, according to the report.
In recent years, companies including Yahoo, Best Buy, IBM, Honeywell and Bank of America have garnered attention for reducing or eliminating their work-from-home programs. Company leaders cited the need to improve teamwork, collaboration and communication as reasons for the change, according to published media reports. Lister, however, believes other factors drove the changes.
“The ones that have reversed their policies are largely companies that are in deep trouble,” she says. “When things are really bad, you want to gather everyone around the fire.”
Florida International University College of Business professor Ravi Gajendran, who conducts extensive research into remote work, agrees that high-performing companies don’t typically slash telecommuting opportunities.
“Companies in crisis want to rally the troops and get everyone together around a single mission,” he says. “That’s what happened at Yahoo.”
In contrast, Dell and other companies are expanding off-site work programs. Thirty-seven percent of Dell employees work remotely two to three days weekly, and the company plans to increase the number to 50 percent next year, Lister says.
Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) is among the companies that had scaled back telecommuting, but has since reversed course.
“Our policy has always been one of allowing flexible work arrangements, subject to manager approval and business needs,” says Adam Bauer, director of Issues Management and Policy Communications at HPE. “During a period of intense change … employees were encouraged to be in the office and a higher level of manager approval was required for telework. Our CEO, Antonio Neri, has focused on providing a flexible work environment to employees as part of HPE’s culture since taking the role last year.”
About 15 percent of employees at Wagento, an e-commerce development company, are fully remote, but that’s more a result of geographical considerations than a conscious decision to let employees work off-site, says Brent Peterson, the head of customer experience.
“When we started expanding in Mexico, we had a hard time determining which city we were going to locate in so that no one had to drive too far,” he says. “It was easier for some team members to work remotely.”
The Sweet Spot
Research shows employees prefer working some of the time remotely and the remainder in offices, Lister and Gajendran say. The sweet spot is one to three days at home and two to three days in an office. Gajendran calls this “low-intensity telecommuting,” which gives employees the flexibility to choose when they work from home.
Giving employees the ability to self-manage – letting them choose their hours and environment – is ideal, Farrer says.
Ninety-nine percent of 2,471 remote workers who participated in a survey earlier this year from Buffer, a cloud-based social media software company, said they’d like to telecommute at least some of the time for the remainder of their careers. The majority came from the United States, but participants were also based in Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Germany and Ireland, among other countries.
The preference for distributed teams may stem, in part, from workers rejecting open offices, in which staff and equipment are placed in single rooms. Proponents heralded the open-office concept as a way to reduce costs and promote interaction among employees, but many workers don’t like it and miss their privacy, according to a 2018 study by Harvard University researchers.
“Open offices were supposed to spark collaboration and innovation, but it just hasn’t happened,” Lister says.
In Buffer’s survey, 16% of participants said they have the freedom to telecommute as needed, while 9% were restricted to specific days per week or month.
“We’ve got a long way to go before we’ll see full-time remote work become consistent and stable,” Farrer says. “Infrastructures to support full-time home office workers and digital nomads are still in their infancy.”
Remote Work Employee Benefits
Bloom studied China’s largest travel agency, Ctrip, over nearly two years to test his theory that working from home is a win-win for employers and employees. He reported a 13% increase in productivity for remote workers. Removing commuting time and the distractions of a traditional office reduces stress and allows workers to concentrate and work longer hours more efficiently, Bloom found.
Watch Bloom describe his research and conclusions in his TEDxStanford talk below:
Distributed teams also benefit from flexible work hours. A flexible schedule is the biggest benefit to telecommuting, according to 40 percent of those who participated in the Buffer survey. Workers can accommodate walks, doctor appointments, family time and other activities into the workday and still meet deadlines, contributing to work-life balance.
“It enables us to stay connected across time zones and maintain high levels of productivity,” Salihefendic says. “Everyone can set their own work schedules according to what works best for them, regardless of when everyone else is working.”
Champions for remote work say it enhances creativity and innovation, provided employees have regular opportunities to communicate and interact with one another.
Remote Work Employer Benefits
An increasing number of employers offer work-from-home programs to attract and retain staff. Rather than being location-dependent, employers can hire from afar, finding the most skilled and passionate candidates across the globe.
“We’ve been able to find amazing people from around the world without having to compete against hundreds of other companies in the same tech hub,” Salihefendic says.
Companies can also save operating and overhead costs by minimizing or eliminating office space. If a typical business allowed its employees to telecommute 50% of the time, the company could save over $11,000 per remote worker per year, according to Global Workplace Analytics.
Still, some organizations view telecommuting as a discretionary privilege rather than a bottom-line benefit, Gajendran says.
“They think they’re only doing employees a favor by letting them work from home,” he says. “Organizations should recognize that telecommuting is one tool to improve employee satisfaction and productivity while optimizing space.”
Only 3% of companies that have flexible and remote work programs formally analyze those initiatives, Global Workplace Analytics found. Tracking and analysis can help improve outcomes, decrease costs and ensure remote work programs contribute to an effective business strategy, the organization noted.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
While significant research supports telecommuting’s benefits, it also points to some negatives. In Bloom’s study, 50% of the participants who had been allowed to work from home decided to return to the office, saying they felt too much isolation. They were also correct in their perception that employees who worked from home were less likely to be promoted and receive bonuses.
Disconnection and isolation are recurring themes. Nineteen percent of participants in the Buffer survey reported feeling lonely.
The Buffer survey participants also cited difficulties collaborating with their remote colleagues. Collaborative effort is highly dependent on well-developed personal relationships that typically come with face-to-face interaction.
“Remote-first companies face unique team collaboration challenges,” Salihefendic says. “Many of today’s work processes and tools are predicated on everyone being in the same physical location. Remote teams require new workflows and management strategies.”
Fully remote workers are less engaged because of a lack of relationships with co-workers and reduced development opportunities, Gallup found in its 2017 “State of the American Workplace” report. The organization concluded that remote working is best when employees maintain connections to their companies’ offices.
“It’s a lot harder to collaborate when people are spread out,” Peterson says. “It’s good to have one or two days a week when employees can work remotely, but it’s also good to have them in the office the remainder of the time.”
“High-intensity telecommuting” – when employees are away from their offices for the majority of the workweek – has a detrimental effect on co-worker relationships and efficiency, Gajendran discovered in his research.
Another negative is that working from home may blur the separation between work and life, leading employees to work during “off” hours. Twenty-two percent of the Buffer survey participants said they have trouble unplugging after work.
How to Make a Distributed Workforce Successful
Before becoming a partial or fully remote organization, managers should create comprehensive, legally compliant remote work policies and put the appropriate infrastructure in place to support work-from-home programs, Farrer and Lister say.
“Make the process formal,” Lister says. “Provide the training, technology and tools to help employees be successful.”
Converting to virtual operations also requires a different way of measuring productivity and results. Managers in offices typically think of employees as being busy if they’re participating in meetings and working on their computers.
“Managers traditionally measure productivity based on sensory information,” Farrer says. “Can they see the backs of their employees’ heads? Are conference rooms full? Are phones ringing? Remote work requires evaluation methods that focus on goals and outcomes – not activity.”
Companies also need to trust distributed teams to manage their own time and complete their work. If employees feel trusted and independent, motivation, loyalty, creativity, productivity and accountability will increase, Farrer says.
In addition, managers must coach and connect with remote workers in new ways. Collaboration platforms, teleconferencing software and other tools enhance communication on both ends.
“Set up employees for success,” Gajendran says. “Regular check-ins reassure managers that employees are on track and help workers to avoid feeling lost.”
Farrer adds, “It doesn’t matter what tools you use – it’s about how you use the tools. It’s up to managers to inspire creativity, communication, collaboration and results. If a company isn’t full invested in or intentional enough about making a fresh start to a distributed workforce, remote work killers like isolation, miscommunication and burnout are imminent.”
At a minimum, remote teams need channels for casual “watercooler” conversations and face-to-face opportunities for personal bonding. On the virtual side, team huddles, real-time chats and video calls to celebrate birthdays, personal accomplishments and other news that isn’t work-related help workers feel engaged and connected. It’s also important for remote workers to meet in person at least twice a year at retreats or other company events.
“Remote organizations are very intentional about how they replace the esprit de corps that’s associated with working in an office,” Lister says.
More Than a Trend
Remote work isn’t for everyone, just as being fully office-based isn’t. What’s clear, however, is that distance is no longer a barrier to communication, collaboration, innovation and work. Organizations that have embraced a distributed culture and have the policies, systems and technology in place to support it maintain that remote work is transformative.
“Remote work isn’t just a different way to work – it’s a different way to live,” Salihefendic told Buffer.
Telecommuting is disrupting the traditional workplace and is here to stay, Gajendran says. It’s not the norm at most workplaces, but it’s making inroads.
“I’m an advocate for creating an environment where people can thrive, giving them the opportunity to work how, when and where they want,” Lister says. “That’s what we should be doing if that’s what it takes to improve productivity and performance.”
Is your company partially or fully remote? What benefits do you and your employees achieve from telecommuting? Are you planning to expand or reduce your telecommuting program and, if so, why? We want to hear from you. Let us know in the comments below.