Published: 28 October 2019
Analyst(s): Human Resources Research Team
For many people and companies, the future of work is remote. As more employees spend at least part of their week working from home, organizations need to think strategically about designing policies that enable remote workers to succeed.
Remote work is fast becoming a fixture of the digital work environment. While Census data shows that only 5% of employed U.S. adults worked primarily from home last year, a growing segment of the workforce is spending at least part of their workweek at home. A recent survey of full-time U.S. workers by Owl Labs found that 62% worked remotely at least some of the time; nearly half of those who work remotely said they did so at least once a week, and 30% said they were full-time remote workers. This phenomenon isn’t limited to the U.S., either: a study last year by the Switzerland-based serviced office provider IWG found that 70% of professionals around the world were working remotely at least one day a week.
Different studies come to very different conclusions about the scale of the remote workforce, so precise data is hard to come by, but these and other surveys all point in the same direction: More people in developed economies are working remotely today than ever before, and those numbers only stand to grow as professionals’ work continues to become primarily or exclusively digital, and as virtual reality and augmented reality technologies expand the possibilities of what work can be performed remotely. The concept of remote work has also expanded, and will continue to do so: Remote work is no longer synonymous with working from home. Many people work remotely from coworking spaces, while traveling, or even in outdoor spaces.
Some talent segments, such as programmers, have come to expect remote work as a standard feature of their job rather than a perk. Likewise, organizations will also need to prepare for the rising impact of Generation Z within their workforce, who are not just digitally native, but digital collaboration native. Generation Z has been collaborating virtually their entire lives, and they see remote work as a basic facet of how work can be done, not a perk. Employers have to make big decisions about whether to embrace remote work and how to incorporate it into their organizational culture, or risk talent crises in the years to come.
Flexibility in terms of when and where they work has become a high priority for many professionals, especially those who have or are looking to start families, who have aging parents, or who have long commutes. A recent article at Recode highlighted the attraction to remote work from the employee perspective, touching on some of the main reasons people prefer it. Working exclusively from home lets employees live wherever they want, even if it’s not in the same city as their employer — a boon to employees of organizations based in very high-cost areas like New York and the San Francisco Bay area. Not having to commute gives employees an hour or two (or more!) of extra time each day. Remote workers report being more productive and better able to concentrate on their work when they are not distracted by meetings, chit-chat, and other office interruptions. In general, working from home gives more control over their time and their workspace.
There are downsides, of course: Working from home can make it harder to maintain firm boundaries between one’s home life and work life, fostering an unhealthy “always-on” mentality about work. Ironically, while you might expect remote workers to spend less time at work than on-site employees, they often end up working longer hours. Full-time remote work can be lonely, depriving employees of the social benefits of a shared workspace, while also making it harder to collaborate. This may explain why Gallup’s 2017 “State of the American Workplace” report found that the most engaged employees work remotely 60% to 80% of the time — not 100%.
Remote work has pros and cons for employers, too. It can improve employee engagement, retention, and productivity, promote diversity, and reduce office space costs. On the other hand, working remotely makes employees less visible to their managers, which can be an obstacle to training, performance management, and recognition. Collaboration, building team relationships, and including remote workers in the broader company culture all become more challenging when co-workers aren’t all in the same physical space, though a variety of technological solutions have emerged to attempt to address these challenges.
There are several strategies you can use to allow employees to work remotely while maintaining high standards of productivity and teamwork.
Opt for flexibility over a blanket policy. Individual employees will have different reasons for wanting to work from home, while their managers and teams will have their own needs and concerns. It’s important to establish clear guidelines for why and how employees can work remotely, to prevent abuse and maintain an equitable work environment, but managers and their direct reports should be able to negotiate remote work arrangements based on mutual trust. For example, if an employee who has arranged with her manager to work remotely only on Mondays and Fridays occasionally needs to work from home on a Wednesday because her child is sick or had a half-day at school, or if her manager needs all hands in the office on a Monday for a special project, an effective policy should be flexible enough to accommodate those contingencies.
At the same time, it’s important to have clear and consistent guidelines and expectations. In a conversation about work-from-home policies on our HR Leaders Forum, several HR leaders stressed the importance of having a formal flexible work policy with an approval process that applies equitably to all employees. This ensures fairness and consistency, while reducing the likelihood of the policy being abused.
Measure performance by outcomes, not hours. For knowledge workers, who make up the bulk of the remote workforce, best-practice performance management today is results-based. As long as employees are meeting their objectives, managers need not worry about what they are working on at any given moment in the day. If results-based management is appropriate for on-site workers, it is doubly so for remote workers who are not visible to their managers throughout the day. Managers should follow up regularly with their remote team members to communicate objectives and give continuous feedback based on results.
Consider which employees you are allowing to work from home. Remote work is more appropriate for some roles than others. Experienced employees who work independently, have external-facing roles, don’t need to be actively managed, and don’t need to collaborate frequently or extensively with other team members are more likely to be successful remote workers. HR may need to develop training programs or decision tools to help challenge manager assumptions about which roles need to be actively managed, and to help managers shift from a focus on physical presence to a focus on outcomes.
Maintain robust channels for remote collaboration. To overcome remote worker isolation and barriers to teamwork, create virtual common spaces like message boards or intranets, allowing remote workers to interact with their colleagues and enabling the type of informal interaction they might have in an office. There is no shortage of digital communication platforms for keeping remote workers connected to their teammates and supervisors. You can strengthen these connections further with video conferencing and regular on-site meetings. Regular communication will help remote workers feel less isolated and more included, while creating additional means of accountability and motivation.
Learn about what your peers are doing with flexible work arrangements and how to use flexible work to best drive talent outcomes.
In an effort to reduce the cost of office space, HR leaders often encourage employees to work remotely. However, if the emphasis is only on freeing up space, then these efforts will fail. This research describes the essential first steps of creating remote work programs.
Some high-profile companies have chosen to scale back their remote-work policies to encourage collaboration. This research can help you decide whether this is the right move for your organization, with advice on how to reap the benefits of flexible work without sacrificing innovation.
“American Community Survey 2018,” United States Census Bureau.
“State of Remote Work 2019,” Owl Labs.
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