Remote working (telecommuting) has a tattered history. There was a time when it was marketed as the future of the workplace and it was going to:
- save time for workers by giving back the, often significant, time spent travelling to and from work;
- save the environment by taking workers off the roads; and
- save money and resources for employers by enabling them to downsize office spaces.
There are many reasons given by naysayers why remote working is not ideal, including:
- the potential for poor relationships between those who attend the office and those who telecommute and the effect this may have on workplace collaboration;
- the perception that teleworking has a negative effect on career advancement; and
- employers’ desire to maintain ‘full control’ over their workforce which does not seem to be satisfied by employees working remotely.
Commentators and researchers are less than helpful with their contradictory findings. Some support remote working, others find it questionable, while there are those who raise just as many potential issues as advantages when discussing teleworking.
In my personal experience the three biggest concerns raised time and time again are:
- the ‘need to be seen’ theory (or fallacy?);
- the need for employers to (feel to) be in ‘control’; and
- the ‘danger’ to collaboration between employees.
The first two points are interrelated and easily ‘destroyed’ in seconds. First, the ‘need to be seen’ is a tragic cultural throwback and has no place in organising a modern 21st century work environment. The old ‘if I don’t see you sitting at your desk in the office, you are not doing work’ approach is downright laughable. The key, and only true, performance indicator is the productivity of an employee, not where he or she performs the work. In most cases an employee’s productivity can be objectively determined and chaining an employee to an office will have no tangible positive impact. In fact there are indications that remote workers can often be more productive.
The third point doesn’t take much time to unravel either, even though the epitome of the modern workplace, Yahoo, banned telecommuting in 2013, over concerns that working from home prevented workers from having sufficient collaborative opportunities, leading to a renewed debate on the issue.
Social media, the proliferation of mainstream videoconferencing such as Skype and Apple’s FaceTime, and cloud-based collaboration tools are revolutionising human interaction and collaboration at an exponential rate. Admittedly, there is a significant generational gap in the adoption of social media and other emerging technologies. While some members of older generations may have only one concept of collaboration, sitting together in a meeting room, we have whole new generations who are native social media/online collaborators. To suggest to those generations that they are only capable of business collaboration in face-to-face office settings is bordering on the farcical given the limitless possibilities of online collaboration across cities, countries and continents. At age 45 I am certainly no member of any of the younger social media generations, nevertheless, even I have grown tired of the same old way of doing business and the failure to adopt and take full advantage of new technologies available to increase productivity and create a truly engaged and happy workforce by offering flexibility and choice.
I am not suggesting that you do away with your office completely, or that your workers will never need to meet face-to-face. You will still need to onboard new employees and offer collaborative, social spaces for your employees to come together from time-to-time as required for specific projects.
Remote working may not be sought out by everyone as some will prefer and, as a consequence, even perform better in a structured office environment. Further, remote working may not be suitable to everyone and where that’s the case it will no doubt be reflected in performance and productivity, which will enable the employer to take steps to bring remote working by such an employee to an end. However, the fact that one or more individuals don’t perform satisfactorily in a remote working set up, shouldn’t be the end of remote working for all.
You hire professionals for their intellect, professionalism, skills and unique talent and, subject to key performance and productivity indicators being met, if you provide them with flexibility and treat them like adults, you are far more likely to get the absolute best out of them. In the 21st century, workplace flexibility loses its meaning if it does not include the option of remote working, where the circumstances allow it and the technology enables it.
If I had a dollar for every time a highly skilled professional confided in me that they are treated ‘like a mushroom’ at work, I would be a very wealthy man. I am fascinated by employers who seek out the best of the best, the most competent, intelligent and unique talent, pay them significant amounts of money for their services, but then box them in and virtually assure that they will never get the best out of them.