Today’s workplace is rapidly changing to accommodate modern employee expectations and increasing knowledge on how to keep staff satisfied and productive. One particular shift has been in remote working trends. In 2016, 43% of employees worked remotely “at least sometimes”, according to one Gallup survey, up from 39% in 2012. Additionally, while 3.3% of workers worked from home in 2000, that number increased to 5.2% of workers in 2017. It’s clear that work-from-home policies are steadily becoming more popular in the workplace.
Employers are increasingly offering the option to work-from-home as a perk, largely as a result of a tight labor market and considerable competition for top talent. An Indeed study found that nearly half of employees surveyed reported that when choosing a job, whether or not a company offered remote work would be an important factor. In today’s fast-paced world, this makes sense — more flexibility is often necessary to meet the many demands of a modern lifestyle.
But offering remote work as a perk doesn’t only attract top talent — it broadens the pool of talent to which employers have access. Work-from-anywhere programs, in which employees are essentially fully remote, allow businesses to source talented employees that don’t reside near a company office. At times when employers are struggling to find the right people nearby to fill key roles, offering this option to candidates presents a win-win scenario for employers and employees alike.
Still, one persistent question that comes up amongst employers who are considering implementing work-from-home or work-from-anywhere policies is: are remote employees actually productive, or does the work-from-home perk ultimately force employers to compromise on output? We’ve put together some evidence for why remote work does work to an extent, as well as tips on how to get the most out of WFH policies.
The Pros of Remote Work Policies
Many studies show that remote workers exhibit higher levels of productivity than their in-office counterparts. One Stanford study, for example, took a group of call center workers and studied their remote working productivity compared to a similar group of non-remote workers. The study found that the remote work group’s productivity increased by 13%. When interviewed, the workers cited two principal reasons for the boost in productivity. First, they noted that the conveniences of home allowed them to take fewer breaks and work more hours. Second, they remarked on the relative silence they enjoyed at home compared to the office. This second point becomes even more salient when considering the meteoric rise of open-plan offices, which have been lambasted as massive drains on productivity due to the distractions and lack of privacy to which employees are subjected. Being able to focus at home can be much better for output than a noisy office setting.
Other notable benefits of this work-from-home program included a 50% drop in employee attrition and a 20 to 30% increase in total factor productivity. This decrease in attrition with remote work has been remarked on generally — a Global Workplace Analytics report finds that 95% of employers who adopt remote work policies see improvements in employee retention. Replacing employees is costly (from both a time and financial perspective), so telecommuting policies allow both individuals and businesses to maximize their productivity.
Another factor that allows telecommuting employees to be more productive is the elimination of a commute. Americans spend, on average, 26.9 minutes on each leg of their commute, a figure that is only increasing annually. And more than 14 million Americans experience one-way commute times of over an hour. Global Workplace Analytics reports that close to 50% of employees feel that their commute is worsening, with 70% believing their employers should actively help them solve this issue.
When doing away with the often exorbitant amounts of time spent commuting, employees are able to put in more time working. The Stanford study found that remote employees put in the equivalent of an additional day of work per week. When coupled with the measurable boost in productivity, it’s clear that this isn’t just a case of more logged hours, but of actual increased output.
Employers also find that remote-work employees take fewer sick days than in-office employees. While it’s not advisable to discourage employees from taking sick days, there are times when this structure may work to both the employee’s and the employer’s advantage. An employee may be suffering from an ailment that doesn’t impede their ability to work, but that prevents them from traveling comfortably and/or being at ease in the office — for example, a bad back or a cough. Empowering employees to enjoy the comforts of home when they are not feeling in peak shape but are still able to work will decrease the number of sick days that employees take because they don’t feel well enough to be in the office.
The Cons of Remote Work Policies
Though it’s clear that remote working can maximize productivity and time spent working, it’s important to note the downsides of excessive remote working that may actually negatively impact productivity.
One of the major negative effects of too much working-from-home is the feeling of isolation. In the office, employees are able to interface with colleagues in real-time, eat lunch in groups, participate in non-work-related conversations, organize after-work events, and more. Creating this kind of camaraderie is extremely difficult amongst employees who work remotely full-time, or nearly full-time. This is evident in the aftermath of the Stanford study — after the work-from-home trial period was finished, the company in question decided to permanently offer a work-from-home option to the organization. Two-thirds of the group that self-selected to be part of the remote-work group in the study elected to continue working in the office after the experiment, concerned about the isolation they faced when working from home.
This isolation can lead to a larger cultural problem — remote employees may lack an understanding of company values and expectations due to a lack of exposure. Being divorced from the day-to-day in-office communications will naturally impede coworkers from adhering to a shared value system because of the lack of observation of those values in action. Moreover, most of us are not naturally 100% intrinsically motivated — as such, it can be hard to muster up excitement around tackling important problems and contributing to business growth without social interaction. Office traditions such as sales gongs and celebratory team lunches, for example, are long-standing ways of celebrating achievements that simply can’t be replicated digitally.
While feelings of isolation and a lack of enthusiasm don’t directly deter from productivity in a strictly “time-input, work-output” sense, it’s been shown that a lack of cohesion in company culture negatively impacts employee engagement and, consequently, productivity. One study shows that highly-engaged teams are 21% more productive than those that are less engaged. This makes intuitive sense — when you’re excited about doing something, you naturally put more effort into doing it.
In addition, the lack of social interaction has been shown to lead to anxiety amongst remote employees. They fear being left out, being spoken negatively about, and about generally not being vouched for. They’re also afraid that they’re being perceived as lazy by their in-office colleagues. This fear may not totally be off-base in many cases — remote workers are shown to be 50% less likely to receive performance-based promotions. Because remote workers are actually shown to put more time into work and have less work-life balance, this incorrect perception of their dedication may lead to feelings of resentment.
The overall fear, alienation, and lack of trust that this structure, when not managed properly, fosters is certainly not a win for employee engagement. Over time, the absence of cohesion and connection that face-to-face interaction fosters can negatively impact how your employees feel about their work, their value, and their satisfaction. This can, longer-term, lead to attrition and decreased rates of productivity. While this may apply more to employees whose jobs require extensive collaboration or are cross-functional in nature, it’s important to consider that these effects may be felt across the board.
How to Boost Remote Working Productivity
When looking to institute remote work programs while avoiding the negative effects on employee engagement, collaboration, and team cohesion, companies can implement the following tactics where applicable.
It’s easy for remote workers to feel as though they’re not being properly valued. One way to combat this is to share their wins among the wider team and be vocal about positive feedback. If they feel as though they are being recognized appropriately for their contributions, they are less likely to feel the anxiety and fear that often plague remote employees.
Foster relationships where possible
Since working from home can get lonely, it’s important to include employees in in-person events when possible. This can mean flying remote employees in for team events once per quarter or organizing meetups for remote employees who live in the same area. Making them feel as though they are part of a team will help them stay engaged and invested in their work.
Take an interest in their lives
Employees who consistently work from home miss out on the day-to-day bonding opportunities that are naturally presented by in-office proximity… but that doesn’t mean they don’t value bonding. Have managers make an effort to develop personal relationships with your remote employees by demonstrating an interest in their lives and passions. Though this is tougher to do digitally than in person, the resulting feeling of connectedness will be rewarding.
Check-in consistently — but without micromanaging
When you’re working in an office, it’s easy enough to tap someone on the shoulder to ask a quick question, or to have an impromptu sync when in need of guidance or input. When remote, distance can breed a hesitation to ask for help — or a feeling that you’re not getting the guidance necessary to be successful. Curb this by scheduling frequent check-ins to ensure your remote workers aren’t feeling left alone. The cadence of these check-ins will depend on a variety of factors (the nature of the remote employee’s role, for example), but it’s advisable to not go more than a week without a one-on-one meeting.
It may go without saying, but this meeting should be in the form of a voice or video call — over-relying on written communication can lead to miscommunication, misunderstandings, and a general disconnect. Seeing facial expressions and hearing tones of voice will make both you and your remote employees feel more connected, as well as improve mutual understanding.
However, take care to not make these check-ins feel like micromanaging. Make it clear that you trust your employees to do what they need to do. Promoting autonomy and fostering trust while still taking steps to be present and available is the best way to make your employees feel simultaneously respected and heard.
Don’t go overboard, but be flexible
This gets harder to do with work-from-anywhere teams, but when you have a flexible remote work policy for employees who can reasonably commute to the office, it’s important to promote balance in order to curb the negative effects of excessive working from home. Promote the value of face-to-face time with colleagues, while also communicating that you trust employees to take time to work remotely when they need it. Because let’s face it — sometimes we can all use a day to stay home, do some laundry, and zone into our work in a quiet place. Showing employees that you appreciate that and that you’re able to encourage balanced flexibility will make them feel valued and trusted to manage their schedules effectively.
Of course, take into account the kind of work that your employees are doing when offering up work-from-home options. Customer-facing teams or highly collaborative teams may simply need to be in the office more than engineers, for example — and you should take care to explain this reasoning, so there’s no resentment amongst teams.
Flexible working policies have become integral to our conception of work-life balance. If carefully crafting these policies to ensure that your employees have the autonomy they need, while also maximizing their time interacting face-to-face with their colleagues and taking steps to ensure employee engagement doesn’t suffer, your teams will be able to enjoy a successful work-from-home program that is both fair and realistic.