Remote Working – Friend or Foe?

What is Remote Working?

Remote working refers to work that is done, all or in part, outside of a traditional physical office space. Remote working policies are increasingly important for companies to consider in a fast-changing technological and social landscape. Surging office space costs, employee expectations for greater flexibility, and the increasing normalisation of the practice are all putting remote working on the agenda.

Remote working has increased, both in popularity and practice, in recent years as technological advancements have made virtual task performance and team collaboration more feasible. Approximately 14% of the UK workforce works from home regularly, while a recent survey found that 54% of UK office workers now have the option to work remotely at least some of the time. 70% of those workers reported that it was important that their company allow employees to work remotely, and 30% self-reported that their productivity increased when they worked remotely.

But what does the research evidence say- does remote working really “work” for companies, teams, and people?

Does It Work for the Company?

There is strong evidence that remote working benefits companies. Higher productivity at the enterprise level, higher retention, access to a larger talent pool, and cost savings have been widely documented. For example, networking hardware company Cisco estimates that remote working saves the company $277 million annually in productivity. Computer technology company Dell, which plans to have half its workforce working remotely at least part time by 2020, reports that remote working has improved productivity, led to cost savings, and is better for the environment. However, some companies, such as Yahoo!, have infamously declared remote working to be a failure.

Why is remote working so successful for some companies while failing at others? Research suggests that too much focus on technology and not enough focus on process may be part of the problem. To ensure the success of remote workers, companies should focus on creating strong, clear processes for communication and coordination, along with building a company culture that fosters engagement.

Does It Work for the Team?

There is surprisingly little research evidence on the impact of remote working at the team level. However, existing evidence indicates that remote working can make team decision-making more efficient, can positively impact the physical office environment by creating quiet times, and can indirectly boost team performance by improving individual employee morale.

Research evidence suggests that the quality of digital collaboration tools is key for successful remote working- high quality tools that are both technically advanced and include opportunities for social interaction and feedback contribute to more effective collaboration.

Anecdotally, Google’s Vint Cerf suggests that remote working has advantages for collaboration, such as the speed with which a collaborative environment can be set up online to find a quick solution in a crisis, as opposed to having to coordinate calendars and perhaps wait weeks in a traditional office space. However, Cerf cautions, physical office space is important too, as it can foster personal, informal connections, which in turn reinforce the quality of remote collaboration.

Does It Work for People?

Remote working benefits people, but there are risks too. Documented advantages of remote working include higher employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention, higher productivity at the individual level, decreased stress, commute-related cost savings, and lower absenteeism. Dell reports that its remote workforce is more engaged, more loyal, and more likely to positively promote the company to others. However, research on remote working has also identified disadvantages, such as longer work hours, family tensions, and isolation.

Remote working isn’t a great fit for everyone. Research finds personal competencies that contribute to successful remote working include high degrees of self-discipline and self-motivation, good communication, technology, and time-management skills, results-orientation, and resourcefulness.

Managers play a very important role in the success of remote working arrangements, as they influence remote workers’ job satisfaction and organisational commitment. Remote workers prioritize trust, empowerment, and reciprocity in their relationships with managers.

If Adopting or Implementing Remote Work Policies, You Should….

  • Publicise and make clear formal remote work policies.
  • Implement remote policies in a fair and consistent manner.
  • Check whether recruitment criteria need to be updated to place greater emphasis on hiring people who are suited to remote working.
  • Prepare managers by educating them in the different management styles and techniques required to manage remote workers effectively.
  • Invest in educating remote workers in techniques for effective collaboration when working virtually.
  • Use excellent, information-rich, and interactive digital tools to encourage remote collaboration.
  • Set clear expectations and boundaries to avoid an ‘always on’ culture.
  • Research has found that the impact of remote working is influenced by the nature of the team and the task – tightly-knit teams with high task interdependence are more likely to be disrupted. Road-test your remote working policy to check it’s sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of different teams and functions, depending on their role and objectives.
  • Keep in mind that remote work policies are more likely to flourish when employees still have occasional opportunities to meet face-to-face, whether that is by working remotely only part-time or by meeting a few times annually for company-wide conferences and events.

References and Reading List

Burt, J. 2013. “Dell wants half of employees working remotely by 2020.” eWeek (http://www.eweek.com/mobile/dell-wants-half-of-employees-working-remotely-by-2020).

Busch, E., Nash, J., and B.S. Bell. 2011. “Remote work: An examination of current trends and emerging issues.” Ithaca, NY: Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, Cornell University.

Cisco. 2009. “Cisco study finds telecommuting significantly increases employee productivity, work-life flexibility and job satisfaction.” (https://newsroom.cisco.com/press-release-content?type=webcontent&articleId=5000107).

Clarke, S. and L. Holdsworth. 2017. “Flexibility in the workplace: Implications of flexible work arrangements for individuals, teams and organisations.” Acas Council (http://m.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/o/7/Flexibility-in-the-Workplace.pdf).

Crabtree, Steve. 2014. “Can people collaborate effectively while working remotely?” Gallup Business Journal (http://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/167573/people-collaborate-effectively-working-remotely.aspx).

Deshpande, A., Sharp, H., Barroca, L. and P. Gregory. 2016. “Remote Working and Collaboration in Agile Teams.” International Conference on Information Systems 2016
(http://agileresearchnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/2016-ICIS-Remote-Working-and-Collaboration-in-Agile-Teams.pdf).

Fell, S.S. 2018. “Remote workers are more loyal: 3 insights why these top 100 companies hire remote workers.” Inc. (https://www.inc.com/sara-sutton-fell/3-reasons-why-these-top-100-companies-hire-remote-workers-why-you-should-too.html).

Golden, T. and J. Veiga. 2005. “The role of virtual work in understanding the impact of supervisory relationships.” Academy of Management Best Conference Paper, K1-K5.

Graber, S. 2015. “Why remote work thrives in some companies and fails in others.” Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2015/03/why-remote-work-thrives-in-some-companies-and-fails-in-others).

Mäkikangas, A., Aunola, K., Seppälä, P., and J. Hakanen. 2016. “Work engagement–team performance relationship: Shared job crafting as a moderator.” Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, 89(4), 772–790.

Mulki, J., Bardhi, F., Lassk, F. and J. Nanavaty-Dahl. 2009. “Set up remote workers to thrive.” MIT Sloan Management Review, 51(1), 63-69.

Office of National Statistics. 2015. “Home workers rates and levels: Jan to Mar 2015.” (https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/adhocs/005578homeworkersratesandlevelsjantomar2015).

Raghuram, S., and B. Wiesenfeld. 2004. “Work-nonwork conflict and job stress among virtual workers.” Human Resource Management, 43(2), 259-277.

Street, R., Wang, D., and V. Tetali. “What 20 years as a remote organization has taught us about managing remote teams.” Harvard Business Review  (https://hbr.org/2017/02/what-20-years-as-a-remote-organization-has-taught-us-about-managing-remote-teams).

YouGov. 2015. “30% of UK office workers are more productive when working remotely.” (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/10/20/30-uk-office-workers-are-more-productive-when-work/).

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