With the surge in telecommuting in recent years has come a backlash of sorts from some in the corporate world.
One could hardly be blamed for thinking the remote-work trend has peaked, based on a flurry of media coverage in 2017, including The Atlantic, MarketWatch and Business Insider.
Within the past five years, several major companies including Yahoo!, IBM, Reddit and Aetna have made headlines by curtailing or eliminating their work-from-home policies. It seemed that both old-economy and new-economy employers were finding their remote work policies were not contributing to productivity, innovation, competitiveness and other organizational goals.
Some tech companies like Apple and Google never had remote-work policies, instead fostering in-office appeal with perks such as casual dress, free food, and other features designed to make the office experience more enjoyable.
IBM, once a vanguard in the remote-work movement, announced last year it would require some 2,600 remote employees to migrate back to a regional office. Several years earlier, new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer stunned the corporate world by eliminating that company’s work-from-home policy.
However, the remote work death knells have been prematurely sounded. What’s really needed are appropriate remote work policies and strategies; with the right balance, employers and employees alike will benefit tremendously.
Why companies don’t want employees to work from home
Companies that end or refuse to establish remote work policies generally cite a few common reasons:
- The desire to foster innovation and problem-solving through face-to-face collaboration and ad hoc discussions.
- Greater employee accountability to co-workers and fellow team members.
- The perception that remote workers are not as productive as office workers.
I believe the reason many employers remain stubbornly resistant to the concept of remote work is largely due to long-held beliefs about employee abuses, despite data showing remote/flex work policies are a net positive for most organizations and that employees greatly prefer the option.
A Gallup survey found that in certain industries—engineering/architecture, social services and the education/library fields—remote work declined from 2012 to 2016. Some of that can be attributed to the nature of the work. Yet other industries, including finance, real estate and insurance, saw an increase in the use of a remote workforce.
The most touted advantages of telecommuting
- The elimination of commute time—a benefit that is environmentally friendly and saves the employee time and money.
- Reduction of the need for expensive office space
- Fewer distractions that come with working in an office.
Essentially, less-stressed workers are happier, more productive workers, a benefit that also improves retention and job satisfaction.
The downsides of telecommuting
- Social isolation and being cut off from office dynamics and professional opportunities—the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome.
- Resentment from employees who are not allowed to work remotely.
- Potential for home distractions, if not prepared for success.
However, better use of web-conferencing technologies such as Skype and BlueJeans and enterprise collaboration platform tools like Yammer, Chatter, Workplace & Slack can remedy these potential concerns.
The reality of remote worker productivity
The perception that remote workers work less than office workers simply does not hold up under studies or anecdotal scrutiny. Data from around the globe—including a recent UK study from Cardiff University—show that employees who work from home are more likely to work extra hours and put in extra effort.
Studies also show that remote work productivity and effectiveness depends a great deal on the worker’s role and function. Positions that do not rely on heavy teamwork are best suited for telecommuting: IT support, research, intelligence and customer support are prime examples.
However, roles that require collaborative problem-solving and heavy interaction may suffer from lack of face-to-face, real-time engagement, particularly in new-product development. This was reportedly behind the IBM and Yahoo! decisions to scuttle their work-from-home policies.
Numbers don’t lie: Remote work is here to stay
But remote work is not going away anytime soon. The advantages still exceed the drawbacks.
Professionals in many fields have come to expect the flexibility to work remotely at least part of the time, and it has become viewed as a negotiable job benefit as significant as paid time off. Multiple surveys report higher job satisfaction among full-time and part-time telecommuters than among office-based workers, a reality that employers cannot ignore, especially for skills that are in-demand. Remote work policies give employers a much larger talent pool beyond their geographic base from which to recruit. This is an important consideration not only in remote or rural areas with limited candidate pools, but increasingly in cities that are desirable yet costly to live in, such as San Francisco or New York City.
Remote working data
A recent report from Flex Jobs entitled “2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce” found the following data in support of remote work policies:
- 9 million employees, or 2.9 percent of the total workforce, work from home at least half the time, a 115 percent increase from 2005.
- The average telecommuter was over age 35, more educated than in-office workers and with a higher median salary.
- In the majority of the top U.S. metro areas, telecommuting exceeds public transportation as the commute option of choice.
Remote work data from Gallup
- Between 2012 and 2016, the share of employees surveyed by Gallup who work remotely 80 percent or more of the time grew from 24 to 31 percent.
- Gallup also found that the ability to work from home at least part time played a key role in an employee’s decision to take or remain in a job.
- Other studies have found that remote work and flexible work policies improve employee retention.
Dell has reportedly revealed it wants half its employees to work remotely for at least part of their week by 2020.
Solutions to remote-work barriers
Obstacles to successful remote work can be overcome by ensuring employees remain actively engaged through improved technology, clearly communicated policies and smarter management. For instance, employees can feel more connected if they have opportunities to interface and socialize with coworkers virtually—to substitute for water cooler chats—with cutting-edge tools that seem to emerge year over year.
Remote employees should be held accountable for delivering measurable results. Virtual meeting tools like Citrix GoToMeeting, Bluejeans, Cisco WebEx, Skype for Business and Join.me can ensure workers are continually prepared to report in for greater accountability. Knowing they could be summoned to a video meeting on short notice may encourage virtual employees to look and behave more professionally than they otherwise would.
For the remote employee who may be challenged by freedom and lack of supervision, smart time management, including fixed schedules and time away from the desk during the day to recharge, is essential. Studies show that contrary to popular belief, most telecommuters tend to devote more hours to their jobs rather than less.
Also, considering the time wasted socializing inside the office, slacking off at home is not the issue for remote work that some employers believe it to be. Anyway, other studies have shown that remote workers tend to log more work hours.
LAC Group is a leader in cultivating a remote workforce
LAC Group has been at the forefront of remote-work trends and technologies, having managed remote employees and teams for three decades. We will continue to support telecommuting for our own staff and for our contractors where approved by the client.
The need for organizations to access the services of skilled information professionals, often on short notice, is why we deliver the knowledge and information management services that are in demand, on demand. Our team of remote researchers and other knowledge professionals are ready to step in when time is of the essence, in-house staff are stretched thin and work needs to get done, even after business hours.
Clearly, telecommuting, in one form or another, is here to stay. Collaborative real-time technologies will only keep improving. Organizations that do not adapt to this shift in the traditional concept of work will not be able to attract or retain the best talent and will likely suffer competitively.
Are you an employer who has remote/flex job opportunities for librarians and other knowledge workers? Affordable posting options on LAC Group’s LibGig job site will enable you to reach a candidate pool with the skills you seek, or tell us about your recruiting needs.