Remote working is a trending topic with Google Founders talking about how it will end the 40-hour work week, Marissa Mayer’s no work-from-home edict, and Tony Shae’s focus on increasing collisions by having workers live/work in a company community. I think remote working presents a huge opportunity for companies.
Caveat, this post focuses on work that does not require in-person collaboration as a necessity (e.g. home construction). Also, as context, I’ve managed remote workers for many years and I’ve experienced a proliferation of tools coming to market to help facilitate this practice. I currently work at Oracle where more than half my team is remote and where I work remotely quite often.
This post does not focus on how to manage remote teams rather it makes a case for how optimizing for remote work can be a competitive advantage. From where I stand (as a partial-remote worker) I see the biggest benefit as a quality of life improvement. As the father of a 5-month old, working from home allows me to have lunch with my little boy once in a while. That’s priceless. The benefit for my employer -or for any employer for that matter- is a bit more complicated.
Before spelling out this benefit, I’ll address a common fear that’s associated with remote work that should not be. It basically boils down to managers feeling like they cannot measure work product if the employee is not within sight. In my opinion this has absolutely nothing to do with remote workers. In my experience, I’ve seen non-remote workers squander time effortlessly while in the workplace (e.g. Facebook, shopping, etc). You’re deluding yourself if you think you can “see” work being done by watching workers.
Having a great system to measure productivity is a pre-requisite for management regardless of where workers are in my opinion. For my wife’s business, we use Asana to manage projects, productivity, and collaboration. I think it’s a great solution for supporting remote teams.
There are a couple of key benefits for the company including an increased pool of potential employees and the ability to acquire talent affordably. Though I don’t have great data to support this claim, My own experience is that I work a bit longer and with less interruptions when I’m at home. ConnectSolutions shares some data on this based on surveying. I’d also suggest that remote workers may be even more loyal due to the quality of life benefit. Either way, something’s working here because 40% more workers are doing so from home in the last 10 years.
On the topic of productivity, I have a nuanced perspective. I agree that when I’m at home working uninterrupted I get more of a certain type of work done. I’d suggest that this is most pronounced with work that I can do on my own (e.g. tasks I own, email correspondence, solo-creative work, etc). However, I think remote workers miss out on the most productive interactions with other workers that often occur spontaneously at the water cooler. This is what Tony Shae is optimizing for.
Companies can address this in-part by bringing employees together on a regular basis. At Oracle, my entire team comes together at least twice a year for highly productive “onsite” meetings. Even with the cost of travel this does not come close to offsetting the cost benefit of remote workers. Granted this will never produce the kind of gains as a system optimized for collisions but it will offset some of the gains. Companies that are optimized for remote work make up the difference by affording more workers on the same budget.
In conclusion, I think happy employees working within a disciplined system for measuring productivity can be a competitive advantage for many companies. I do think that it requires a unique approach to management and the application of solutions to manage productivity but more and more managers are gaining that experience today. I hope this is a useful framework for exploring if remote work is appropriate for your company.