Debating whether remote work is good for workplace culture and productivity is akin to discussing whether global warming exists. The science is pretty conclusive on both topics. Where remote work is concerned, it’s clear that the potential benefits outweigh the costs.
For those who haven’t already, it’s time to take another look at integrating a remote work policy into your organization.
The notion that a brick & mortar workplace is needed to survive, compete or thrive in the 2018 global business environment is outdated. With an expected global remote work population of 1 billion people by 2020, companies should feel a sense of urgency in readying their organizational structures for the reality of remote work on a mass scale.
Although the past few generations were born and bred for the nine-to-five, the designated office is a somewhat modern invention. Commuting to a physical workplace en-masse began with the Industrial Revolution. But “the times, they are a-changin’.”
Despite proving to be a persistent model, cubicle life as we know it may one day register more like a blip in the timeline of humanity rather than a definitive turning point.
But when it comes to remote work, is it good, bad, or a necessary evil?
To find the answer, we need to look at:
1. Where and how the concept of remote work originated.
2. Why it died a temporary death.
3. Why it’s back and more relevant than ever.
4. Why your organization should care.
5. What you should do about it.
Let’s Start at the Beginning
The concept of telecommuting in itself is not exactly new. It’s been around since before computers, not to mention the Internet.
But it’s the truth. Telecommuting was around before PCs and WiFi. Before hipster cafes and co-working spaces.
Although the voices of the remote work revolution have been muffled over the past few decades, the concept of working from home is rooted in our DNA.
Since the Dawn of Human History, There Has Always Been a Connection Between the Workplace and the Home
Modern-day discussions about the potential benefits of “remote work” began when NASA engineer Jack Nilles released a 1974 book called The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff.
Nilles was looking for a novel way to address “traffic, sprawl and scarcity of nonrenewable resources,” but his research went viral when it coincided with the peak of the OPEC oil embargo of 1973.
Public discourse around the concept of telecommuting continued into 1979 when The Washington Post published a piece called “Working at Home Can Save Gasoline,” stating that:
“there have been extraordinary changes in the nature of jobs.”
According to the same article, “more than 50 percent of all U.S. jobs are now centered in information-related activities. Our economy has become far less dependent on muscle power and far more dependent on professional, technical and clerical skills.”
Holy shit. There were already valid arguments for remote work before the Internet even existed. That we’re still having this discussion boggles the mind.
The article echoes the same reasons why people work remotely today:
- Many modern-day office activities can be performed from anywhere. Furthermore, jobs that were formerly confined to factories or labs can now also be fulfilled off-site.
- The same technologies and equipment that enable “paperless offices” also exist in the home.
- The future of remote work has mass appeal, foreshadowed by the emerging market for consumer technology. “Sophisticated machines” can combine business functions and communicate with each other.
But if telecommuting was already a thing in the 1970’s, why are we still debating its merits in 2018?
With the current state of technology, the concept of remote work has never been more relevant than it is today.
How the Remote Work Movement Was Stopped Before It Started
According to “The Complete History of Working from Home,” Nilles’ book succeeded in prompting a public discussion about the trade-offs of telecommuting. Yet for various reasons, productivity and oversight concerns won out instead.
Which Arguments Against Remote Work Still Linger in Corporate Culture Today?
The table below compares the top 3 anti-telecommuting arguments from 1979 with The Washington Post’s rebuttal the same year.
The final column contains the outcome: Real quotes from the leaders of today’s fully remote companies, directly refuting the outdated arguments and concerns of naysayers past.
“Just like we couldn’t imagine a cell phone smaller than a toaster in the 1970’s, some companies still believe that they can’t get great performance from their employees unless they show up at an office.”
More Historical Barriers to Adopting a Remote Work Culture
- Disproportionate attention placed on how employees could potentially exploit their newfound freedom and not enough on how companies could benefit (such as saving money on overhead costs).
- Lack of research consensus with insufficient corporate motivation in funding scientific studies.
- Hierarchical organizational models of the time were too rigid to accommodate remote work.
- Large organizations are notoriously resistant to change. Continuing in the status quo is always the path of least resistance.
- Lingering managerial fears that employees can’t perform their duties without direct physical oversight.
- Incorrect assumptions that teams are always more productive and engaged in a physical office.
- The western cultural environment, combined with a lack of competitive options for alternative forms of employment. The institutional educational system, from elementary school through college, has remained effective at priming citizens for entering the traditional workforce — until now. In the past 40 years, the alternatives to regular, salaried jobs were not as attractive or accessible as they are today.
Based on the above, the historical resistance to telecommuting boils down to the age-old effort of big corporations struggling to predict or adapt to change. However, there’s no reason for employees to continue suffering for it.
The technology to support distributed workforces has already existed for nearly half a century. It’s no longer necessary for so many professionals to be stuck in this archaic model when they can perform their duties from anywhere.
Having a physical office or HQ may be relevant for some companies, but it’s high time for business owners and executives to actively question the role of a traditional workplace in carrying out their operating activities and business models.
It’s hard to come up with many legitimate reasons why today’s global organizations don’t offer a remote work option in at least some capacity.
How Remote Work Made a Come-Back
In the 1990’s, a report came out suggesting that remote work offers the same upsides that are still applicable today.
- Improved productivity and employee satisfaction.
- Eliminated necessity for office space.
- Reduced costs.
Even Congress got involved, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a 1997 report showing benefits such as:
- Reduced commuting time.
- Cost savings for employees: transportation, parking, food, and wardrobe (CNN has since reported this amount can exceed $4,000 per year, with employers saving an additional $11,000 annually per remote worker).
- Improvement in the quality of work life and morale.
- Better balance between work and family demands.
Since 2001, some federal employees have been allowed to telecommute as long as it doesn’t affect employee performance.
So, telecommuting as a concept never completely went away. Its validity emerged again in the 2000’s as technology evolved and employers started experiencing tangible benefits from remote teams.
Many studies, including one by Deloitte, have found that flexible working arrangements increase employee retention, productivity, personal responsibility, employee engagement, health and happiness, among other benefits.
Then, in what now appears to have been a rather questionable move, a few corporate giants like Yahoo and IBM implemented then retracted their remote work policies, catching the tech industry off guard.
Yahoo allegedly thought bringing everyone back to the physical workplace would help them compete and innovate better against — cue the irony — agile start-ups with 100% remote teams 🤦, much to the chagrin of their remote employees at the time.
The result? WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, who commented:
“For anyone who enjoys working from wherever they like in the world, and is interested in WordPress, Automattic is 100% committed to being distributed.”
Ouch. Time will tell if backtracking on remote work was the correct decision for those corporate behemoths. In the meantime, more companies than ever are going entirely remote from day one.
But is remote work for everyone?
Why Are Some Companies Successful at Implementing Remote Work Programs While Others Struggle?
Remote work programs that don’t deliver could be a Human Resources issue more than anything else. Hiring people who will be productive in a remote capacity is difficult because finding and hiring the right people is difficult — period. Any recruiter or business owner can attest to that.
Employees who act unethically when given the opportunity to work from home might not be star employees regardless of their physical location. One remote company, Axelerant, states: “…success is about the right people, first.”
Think of a time when you had to work with a colleague who didn’t pull his or her weight. Did being side-by-side in the office make any difference? Probably not. Mature employees should be capable of completing their work from anywhere without someone looking over their shoulder. That being said, employers must also design a system for their workers’ success, including clear communication, deliverables and accountability measures.
It helps to remember that no one is perfect. According to the fully remote company Zapier, which has 135+ employees across 15 time zones:
“A lot of people are more productive in a remote setting, though it does require some more discipline too.”
Hiring for remote teams isn’t much different from regular hiring practices. Groove CEO Alex Turnbull says, “remote working is a skill, just like design or coding, and you need to hire for it.”
Some studies hint that the average employee only completes 2–3 hours of real work per day. While unfortunate, it isn’t very surprising. Without office distractions, remote workers can potentially double or triple that output in actual deep work.
Management experts agree that the best way to measure workers’ performance is on their results, or “output,” rather than their “input,” or the hours they spend in an office space.
Either way, working at home is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Hybrid models have proven to be a successful option as well, allowing people to split their time between home and the office.
Another argument for remote work in 2018 is the nature of communication. Even when co-located in the same office or city, most people communicate through email, IM, Slack, Skype or Zoom more than face-to-face. These methods often seem to replace the good old-fashioned telephone, too.
What About Open Plan Offices? Facebook Must Know What They’re Doing, Right?
Sorry, Mark Zuckerberg, but the opposite is true — offices are the source of many more distractions than remote workspaces. That’s why 93% of surveyed workers choose to leave the office to get meaningful work done.
Even though 70% of America’s offices are open concept, employees tend to hate it. Research indicates that the open office can stunt productivity and creativity, plus increase your chances of getting sick. All these things cost companies money and make a remote work structure even more appealing.
Cal Newport is among those who have discovered that there needs to be a balance between concentration and collaboration for maximum productivity and deep work to occur. He’s onto something.
But What About Meetings?
Surprising almost no one, in-person meetings aren’t more effective than their virtual counterpart.
Cal and other researchers suggest that meetings disrupt people’s attention spans and curtail their ability to complete deep work. Constant interruptions inevitably stunt companies’ total output and earnings potential.
Meetings also typically revolve around “touching base” or measuring some type of virtual launch, reach or KPI. It’s counterintuitive to need an in-person meeting in order to accomplish a digital output goal.
Arkency, a software company, has built a culture around the concepts of “anarchy, async, and remote” to help their distributed team thrive. They intentionally “avoid long discussions.”
Julia Elmann of Zapier contributes some of her design department’s success with remote teams to “creative solitude”:
“In the age of open floor plans and constant collaboration, there is something that is rarely mentioned in today’s design world: the creative process needs quiet. Remote work is ideal for the creative process because it easily allows for designers and researchers to have the solitude they need.”
TED speaker Susan Cain agrees: “…we think creativity all has to emerge from this very collaborative place. But the same is also true of solitude.”
Sure, there are valid arguments to having a physical workplace for employees to gather. There are also exceptions to every rule. One way to find middle ground is by replacing daily face-to-face interaction with quarterly or semi-annual retreats and “workations.”
There you have it:
Open floor plan offices and in-person meetings are detrimental to productivity in the modern workplace.
Remote work for the win.
That was a lot of information to ingest, so let’s sum it up thus far:
A) The concept of remote work has always existed in some form.
B) The benefits of telecommuting have been hotly debated since the 70’s, with the business community unable to commit to a generally-accepted set of remote work principles.
C) The traditional industrial model has continued to dominate — until now.
Of course, one significant invention changed everything. Enter: the World Wide Web. In its wake — the gig economy and the inability of the traditional educational system to keep up with the pace of innovation.
Timing is everything.
How Can Your Organization Benefit from Having Remote Teams?
Remote teams present tangible benefits to an organization’s productivity, innovation, collaboration, communication and profitability. However, there’s one more fundamental reason that didn’t exist in the 70’s.
The best and the brightest already want to work this way, and soon everyone else will as well.
It’s common knowledge that salary alone doesn’t motivate workers. Employees tend to value benefits and flexibility more than pay raises. A remote work option is one of the most desirable perks.
In an HBR study, some American workers ranked flexibility second only to healthcare. Employees who work from home are also more likely to “love” their job by a long shot.
They’re not alone. Half of Australian workers would reportedly trade money or vacation days for the flexibility of working from home.
Freedom and flexibility are especially important for younger workers, who will soon make up the largest workforce demographic. In a Bentley University survey, 77% of millenial respondents said working remotely would make them more productive.
In fact, being able to “work flexibly and still be on track for promotion” was listed as the number one most important characteristic of a new potential job across sectors in a study from Ernst & Young.
“The desire for work-life balance is forcing companies to reevaluate practices … more than half of all professionals have left a job, or considered leaving, because it lacked flexibility.” — Thrive Global
Still Not Convinced?
Ignoring the call to adopt remote work policies will also limit your hiring pool and ability to compete.
If you don’t offer a remote work option, your competitor will. But don’t just take my word for it. Zapier compiled a list of quotes from some of today’s top remote business leaders:
“Being able to hire the very best people without having to consider geographical restraints is key to our company culture — and to our clients’ continuing success.” — Fire Engine RED
“With a distributed team, we can hire the smartest people no matter where they live and keep them if they decide to relocate.” — Invision
“You either have too little talent or too much competition for it (case of SF and the valley) that only established and well-funded companies can afford to compete. With 100% distributed workforce, you have both: a lot of talent and little competition.” — Scraping Hub
Having remote teams is also more cost-effective when you look at the typical overhead costs of running a physical office. They save you money and get you access to the best people, who then report higher job satisfaction rates. It’s a win-win-win.
Companies from nearly every industry have found success with a fully- or partially-remote workforce.
- Automattic → 500 employees in 50 countries
- Basecamp → 50 people in 32 cities
- Axelerant → over 50 global team members
- Buffer → 80 employees in various countries
- Dell → Forecasting 50% of employees to be remote by 2020
- Edgar → 100% remote team
- FlexJobs → 100% remote since its founding
- GitLab → 250 employees in 39 countries
- HelpScout → 75 employees in 12 countries
- Invision → 220+ staffers in 14 countries
- Olark → Employees on 3 continents
- Toggl → 65 people in 9 timezones
- TopTal → 50 employees around the world
- Zapier → More than 100 people across 15 countries
What to Do Next
All signs point to companies being at a significant disadvantage long-term if they don’t get on the bandwagon. Employers who don’t take immediate action will feel the repercussions soon enough.
“In the near future, everyone will work remotely, including those sitting across from you.” — Kevin Kelly
If you continue to postpone making a decision, your prospective talent pool will decide for themselves.
We are witnessing a fascinating phenomenon of bottom-up disruption taking place. Students, entrepreneurs and employees are taking the initiative to work remotely on their own accord. Because they can. The explosion of interest in the digital nomad lifestyle is one vivid example of this.
If companies don’t adapt to the new normal, they simply won’t be able to attract or retain today’s brightest minds.
Would-be company all-stars are more apt to avoid the traditional workplace altogether. If the freedom, autonomy and work-life balance they desire and expect isn’t offered, they are comfortable, confident and competent enough to support themselves in another way — either self-employed or in cohort with their like-minded peers.
Ultimately, it’s in the best interest of companies to at least try and get telecommuting right — because millennials and Gen Z will expect nothing less.
Conclusion and a Call-To-Action for Employers
If you own a business or are a decision maker at your workplace, consider ways to integrate a remote work option into your company culture. Immediately. Or, get left behind (unless you’re Google, perhaps).
Without embracing remote work, your company could miss out on:
- Attracting the best global talent.
- Cutting overhead costs.
- Improving culture, productivity and morale.
- Increasing innovation and creative output.
- Competing effectively in your industry and the global market at large.
Remember, Jack Nilles preached decades ago that “technology was not the limiting factor in the acceptance of telecommuting.” Rather, “organizational — and management — cultural changes were far more important in the rate of acceptance.”
Sadly, even though that was in 1974, it’s still a major hurdle today.
It’s time for everyone to catch up.
Managing remote teams forces companies to set clear goals, expectations, accountability measures and deliverables. That’s a win no matter what.
If your organization is struggling with its remote work policy, it’s not that remote teams don’t work, you’re just not doing it right. There must be a management, HR or systems problem to be diagnosed.
To quote The Washington Post from 40 years ago,
“We are now at a decision point as a society; we must decide whether the way of life made possible by the automobile since the turn of the century will (or can) continue, or if we should consider alternate or modified modes of working, communicating, and living.”
We’re at a tipping point now, too. Get on board or go home. The number of companies that have proven that 100% remote models can thrive, especially in the gig economy, has reached a critical mass.
When companies finally embrace the remote work model, they’ll realize what many of us on the other side have known all along:
“No one misses commutes or the overhead costs of having an office.” — Hubstaff
“One of the best decisions we’ve made is to build a remote culture.” — Help Scout
The verdict is in. Remote work is the present and future of global business. Companies that rise to the challenge will have an edge.
Do you agree that remote work is a requirement for success in today’s global environment? Sound off in the comments below.
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