It’s 5:15pm on a Friday afternoon and I’m currently sitting in a café having just finished work for the week. The company I work for is based 120 miles away from where I live, and apart from social gatherings the last time I physically needed to go to the office was a year ago. This makes me one of a growing proportion of the UK workforce (14% in 2014) who work remotely.
In this article I’m going to explore the nature, benefits, and challenges of remote working drawing on research from a number of major studies. I will also share my personal experience of working remotely compared to an office-based environment. Finally I will attempt to make some predictions and conclusions about the future of remote work.
What is Remote Work?
Remote work is a work arrangement in which employees do not commute or travel (e.g. by bus or car) to a central place of work. —Wikipedia
This rests on the idea is that certain types of work don’t have to take place in a specific location to be done successfully. Remote workers can therefore base themselves at home, in cafés, hotels or other spaces. A sole requirement for many jobs is access to a laptop and internet connection.
Another popular option for remote staff is to base themselves in a dedicated co-working environment. This is a shared space for the use of businesses or individuals, providing desk space, internet, catering and relaxation areas for a small fee.
In a 2019 survey by Owl Labs, out of 1200 US workers surveyed, 54% said they work remotely at least once per month, 48% at least once per week, and 30% full-time.
A larger scale study by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com shows that:
40% of the US workforce works remotely at some frequency with 3.4% (or 4.7 million employees) working from home at least half of the time
A key point is that “remote” is not a single thing but a spectrum of role types. These range from “fully remote”, where the employee works entirely away from a central office, to primarily office-based roles that offer some flexibility for occaisional home working. Most remote roles sit somewhere between these extremes.
Types of Remote Work
Traditionally, the sorts of roles suited to a remote setup are those involving computer-based work. For example: writing, data entry, design, programming, and finance.
The field of telerobotics is opening up to facilitate novel forms of remote interaction. Telepresence robots are being used to teach remotely in classrooms, deliver workshops, provide remote security patrols or explore inaccessible locations.
In fact, the ability to “telecommute” to work has been possible since the 1970s and even remote surgery has been underway for nearly two decades. Due to advances in haptic and robotic technology over 200,000 surgeries have been performed remotely since 2012.
At the time of writing, Working Nomads is advertising over 20,000 remote jobs with the most popular categories being Software Development, Marketing, Management, System Administration, and Design. Software Development accounts for nearly half of the advertised roles.
Some companies are also now employing an entirely remote workforce. For example, Buffer has a fully distributed team of 82 people living and working in 15 countries around the world. Buffer advocate for, and seek to continuously improve remote working. I highly recommend reading their blog for a deeper insight into some of the issues remote teams face. Other fully remote companies include (but are not limited to):
Advantages of Remote Employment
Remote working has many widely stated benefits for employees, employers and society more generally. These include:
- Reduced office costs and overheads for employers, potentially saving businesses over $11,000 per employee per year
- Reduced costs for employees, potentially saving $2000–7000 per year in transportation and / or fuel costs.
- Environmental benefits due to reduced travel. 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from transport, rising to 30% in the US.
- Improved mental and physical health. This can be partially due to not communiting, but for some there are also opportunities to eat more healthily, achieve better work-life balance
- Ability for employers to increase workforce quality and diversity by hiring from a massively increased talent pool. Evidence shows that remote companies have a higher proportion of women in senior leadership roles.
Out of 15,000 business people across 80 nations, 85% believed that greater location flexibility lead to an increase in productivity. — IWG Workplace study (2019)
Some commentators have also argued that remote work has the potential to mitigate the urban / rural divide. The key to this is that by enabling more workers to base themselves in rural regions, economic benefits are distributed outwards from city centres to less densely populated areas.
Challenges of Remote Work
Given the above advantages we might conclude that remote work is a “no brainer” and that where possible employers should encourage and facilitate it. However, remote work does have its challenges.
Whilst studies show a net reduction in costs for employees working remotely (due to cheaper rents and reduced travel costs), remote workers also incur additional expenses. For example Buffer’s annual State of Remote Work survey consistently shows that remote workers tend to pay for their own internet and co-working spaces if needed.
Other costs incurred by remote workers may include a PC or laptop, computer software, heating and electricity bills, and specialist technical equipment.
A challenge for remote workers, especially those who work alone on a fully-remote basis, is dealing with loneliness and maintaining positive mental health. Buffer’s State of Remote survey has consistently shown “Unplugging after work” and “loneliness” as being the biggest struggles reported by remote workers.
Loneliness and depression are definitely very real issues faced by remote workers, and more needs to be done to address them. Nonetheless, studies predominantly show a higher percentage of remote workers stating they are happy in their job compared to office-based workers. Related to this, a 2018 report by Wrike suggests there is a happiness “sweet spot” of working in an office 1 day per week. Simply having the option to work remotely some of the time was shown to increase happiness.
Inability to collaborate is often given as an argument against remote work by advocates of office-based work. The reasoning is usually that teamwork requires face-to-face communication and that being geographically distant creates delays, e.g. when questions need to be answered. In preparing this article, I haven’t found much evidence to support this. Fully-remote companies such as Buffer and InVision wouldn’t stay in business if remote collaboration was a significant barrier. On the contrary, research overwhelmingly shows that productivity increases when remote working is introduced to a business.
According to a 2018 study by Wrike that considered 4000 respondents from the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany:
The majority of employees do not mind collaborating with remote team members
More than 1 in 5 (22%) of less-happy employees have never worked remotely or with a remote team member, which reinforces the connection between happiness and the ability to work remotely.
A Personal Perspective
I have been working in a fully-remote role for over 3 years, and for the 10 years prior to that I was partially remote. For the first 3 years of my career I was 100% office-based, so I have experienced most aspects of the remote spectrum.
Since working from home I’ve been happier and fitter; I have better work-life balance and feel more motivated. Not having to commute to work is a game changer, but so is the additional flexibility of remote working. As a father of three, being able to deal with the school run or child-related emergencies when needed is really helpful. As a developer, I also find the lack of distractions and asynchronous communication significantly increases my productivity.
Despite this positive experience, my overall take is that remote work isn’t for everyone. If you have an extravert personality, you are likely to find working alone for long periods very challenging. If this is the case, working in a co-working environment may go some way in addressing this. Some people also simply prefer the structure and routine provided by office-based work. If this is the case, an office environment is probably the best option for you.
Ultimately, there is no “one size fits all” working arrangement that works best for employers and employees. In my opinion, flexibility is the key to creating a healthy and thriving work environment. As people gain experience, they generally learn how they work best, and employers need to be receptive to this. Likewise, employees need to be flexible and receptive to employer needs, attending office-based meetings etc, if and when needed.
There is no doubt that remote work is on the rise. According to research by Global Workplace Analytics, based on US census data, remote work has grown 159% between 2005 and 2017. Given the net benefits, and rapid improvements in telepresence technology, I expect this growth to accelerate over the next decade.
However, if remote employment is going to continue to expand successfully into the future, there needs to be greater education and awareness amongst employers of the benefits and challenges. Alarmingly, the 2019 Owl Labs Report found that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary 82% of managers had concerns about reduced productivity and employee focus with remote work. Equally worrying is that managers were least concerned about employee loneliness despite evidence that this is one of the biggest issues facing remote staff.
If you are an employer and considering offering more flexibility including remote options, then why not give it a try? I hope I have gone some way in showing that the advantages are numerous and that the challenges, with awareness, can be addressed.