Author: Nancy Rebel, SIRC
Workplaces have changed and provided more employee options over the last few year both in physical space design, the flexibility in hours employers provide, and the options to work from offsite or on. These changes are in response to employers trying to create the most productive work environment for their employees and to satisfy the growing need to accommodate a new generation looking for more flexible work experiences.
Remote work is one of those accommodations that organizations have explored to meet this growing need. Research by Gallup in 2017 found that in 2012 39% of employees worked remotely at least part of the time, this grew to 43% by 2016. Current projections indicate that this number could continue to grow by 2020 up to 75% of employees who will spend at least some of their work time offsite. In looking at the different cohorts of employees, while 90% of Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers have worked remotely, it is 60% of Millennials taking full advantage of remote work options, compared to 33% of Baby Boomers (Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM); Comaford, 2017)).
Not only has the number of employees working remotely increased, but the amount of time they work remotely has also increased. In 2012, 34% of employees worked less than 20% of their time remotely which decreased to 25% in 2016; while only 24% of employees worked 80-100% of their time remotely in 2012 compared to 31% in 2016. So why are these trends fluctuating?
The Case for the Onsite Workforce
Organizations often quote a number of reasons as to why having remote employees does not work to their benefit. Yahoo, Best Buy and IBM have moved to decrease the number of remote employees due concerns of decreased teamwork, collaboration and communication. Other claims include that:
- Employees who work remotely 100% of the time are less engaged
- It’s harder to integrate new employees who are remote
- The company culture suffers when colleagues are not part of the everyday environment
- It causes leadership challenges
- It increases concerns with data safety and security
- Time zones create alignment and communication challenges
“Speed, agility, creativity and true learning experiences within your team,” are just some of the benefits of working together, in-person, from an office…
– Michelle Peluso, IBM
Why do organisations say that they prefer having employees onsite?
- Fosters innovation
- Employees onsite are easier to manage
- It’s easier to support technical issues
- Some employees like being onsite better
- Not everyone is suited to working remotely
- Not all jobs/tasks can be done remotely
- Communication is easier and sometimes clearer in-person
- Higher trust in onsite employees (No out of sight, out of mind)
- Younger staff receive guidance/mentoring
- Flexible hours and part-time work is available
Why Remote Makes Sense
“Choice empowers people and makes for a more content workforce”
– Sir Charles Branson, Virgin
On the other side of the coin, employees cite a number of reasons why working remotely appeals to them. The following are the top 5 reasons employees give for working remotely (Source: West Unified Communication Services Remote Workforce Study)
- Sick children
- Transportation issues
- To avoid a long commute
- To improve productivity
- To avoid distractions
From the point of view for an organization considering integrating remote employment options, the following reasons echo many of those given by employees:
- Cost savings in terms of physical office space needs
- No commute means more time, more money, and less stress
- Gives greater autonomy to the employee and empowers the individual
- Less distractions off site leads to more focus which means that employees are more productive
- Employees who work remotely at least part of the time are more engaged and find a more positive workspace than those who never work remotely
- Often provides for a wider talent pool from which to select employees
The Engagement Debate
Engagement and productivity seem to be linked on both sides of the remote vs onsite debate. With research telling us that the ideal amount of their time that employees should work remotely in order to remain engaged is between 60% to less than 80% of their time (Gallup 2017), it is important for an organization considering having remote employees to look at how can we make remote work more engaging.
- Define productivity clearly so that both employee and employer know what the expectations are
- Recognize/praise good work
- Talk to remote workers about career aspirations and personal development
- Provide opportunities to connect with their coworkers either in-person or virtually
- Managers should display intentional, thoughtful management practices
- Email, chat apps, and video-conferencing have moved to the cloud, which makes it easy for remote workers to stay in touch
Consider some of the following suggested best practices for managers to help make remote employment fulfilling for both the organization and the employee(s):
- Employee and manager must be very clear with how they are measuring what is considered productive.
- Get to know remote employees on a personal level by taking the time during meetings and calls for casual workplace conversations
- Create opportunities for impromptu interactions, create those “water cooler” moments which inspire creativity and collaboration through the use of video chats or other online mediums
- Effective delegation is even more essential as the “walking by your desk” conversations that happen when employees are onsite don’t happen. Delegating effectively nurtures ownership of work and reduces the likelihood of the “order giver-order taker” dynamic, which can diminish the spirit of ownership, innovation, and the feeling of empowerment that good managers try to foster
- Working closely with remote employees can lower the stress of them trying to overcompensate to make their efforts and accomplishments known. This requires ongoing communication and reassurance
- Establish a schedule of communication both between you and your remote employee and between the remote employee and the rest of the team
- Communicate often (results, requests, info updates) to build a sense of inclusion for all team members — this fosters a sense of belonging. Engage everyone during meetings and if possible, have those meetings via video conferencing. Since only 7% of communication is the actual content, seeing each other becomes essential.
So which comes out ahead in the onsite vs remote employee debate?
As has been outlined there are many contributing factors to be considered when deciding which environment is best for an organization. In the end it’s not really a case of right or wrong, but rather what enables your organization to achieve its goals most effectively.
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Comaford, C. (2017). Three Keys to Effectively Managing Remote Workers [Infographic]. Forbes.
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Hardiman, N. (2015). 10 reasons why working in the office work beats telecommuting. TechRepublic.
Knight, R. (2015). How to Manage Remote Direct Reports. Harvard Business Review.
Mann, A. (2017). 3 Ways You Are Failing Your Remote Workers. Gallup Blog.
Mann, A. and Adkins, A. (2017). How Engaged is your Remote Workforce? Gallup Blog.
Passy, J. (2017). Why remote workers are being called back into the office. MarketWatch.
Zuppello, S. (2016). Remote Work: The 10 Biggest Misconceptions. Trello.