Working remotely: what it is and why your organization should be doing it
by Mike Sharkey
Remote working is in the spotlight because of the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s something that’s been transforming work for a while now. How should we define working remotely? Why is it such a powerful tool for companies? And how do you get it right?
Across the globe, estimates suggest that over 50% of employees now work remotely at least once a week.1 And while the rate varies in different countries – 65% of people work remotely 2.5 days or more a week in China, while just 46.3% do so in the UK,2 for example – it’s a phenomenon that’s continually evolving and transforming the way we work.
What is working remotely?
What exactly do we mean by working remotely? Working from home is often used synonymously with remote work, but it’s a practice that’s broader than that. While some people may be working from their kitchen tables or home workspaces, others are setting up in coffee shops or working alongside other people, at least part of the time, in co-working spaces or libraries.
For frontline workers like salespeople, remote working means mobile working. They log in when they’re out in the field, whether that’s a train, a café or a hotel room. Some people may be simply adopting remote working elements, like videoconferencing with teams in other countries, while in their workplaces.
Companies go fully remote
In all its varied forms, remote work has become much more than an add-on to conventional business practice. As the figures suggest, many employees work remotely just part of the time. But some will never or rarely go to their organization’s business premises: A little under half of US employees who work remotely do so full time, according to Gallup’s latest State of the American Workplace Report.
Then there’s the rise of fully remote companies – they don’t have premises, and colleagues use technology to keep in touch with each other. It’s about as far from the traditional set-up, with its daily commute and banks of desks, as you can get.
Working remotely and coronavirus (COVID-19)
Working remotely is increasingly under the spotlight because of the coronavirus pandemic. Governments seeking to control the spread of the disease have implemented social distancing measures to minimize unnecessary contact between people – including when commuting and in the workplace. That means millions of people are working remotely who have never done so before.
In the UK, businesses have been explicitly instructed by the Government to encourage employees to work at home whenever possible. In the US and internationally, many large companies, including Facebook, Ford, General Motors, and Hitachi3 have implemented work from home policies. And many countries like Italy, Spain, Belgium, and France4 implemented lockdown procedures meaning work needs to continue from home.
Is remote work the future?
This en masse remote working presents significant challenges for organizations, and some have resisted implementing work from home policies. Even companies that already have people working remotely will likely find technology like internal email servers and VPNs stretched by the numbers using them.
Those managers used to handling just a small percentage of the workforce working remotely will also face challenges in terms of oversight and communication. And these issues are hugely magnified for organizations with no experience of people working remotely before now.
But coronavirus may be speeding up a process that would have happened in any case. And it may well be that after the pandemic is over, things won’t just go back to ‘normal.’ Those millions of first-time remote workers have now had a taste of life without the daily commute, or flying thousands of miles to attend face-to-face meetings.
“I think this is a big catalyst to shift towards more remote working and managing relationships remotely,” says Sam Walters, Director - Professional Services at global professional recruitment consultancy Robert Walters.
“Work-life balance and flexible working was a concept that was brought to the fore as more millennials entered the workforce. With the widespread mandatory implementation of remote working, we can now expect policies that promote more flexibility and balance will be the preference of almost all people in the workforce.”
Working remotely – wherever you do it – is here to stay, and it’s getting more popular than ever. Because it’s what people want to do, and the technology is there to help us do it well.
The benefits of working from home (or a coffee shop or a co-working space…)
Companies that are suspicious of remote working worry it will lead to a drop in productivity and make communication and oversight more difficult.
“Measuring output is one of the biggest issues with remote working,” says Sam Walters. “Communication and maintaining professionalism towards your approach to work and output can also be challenging. This is where trust between a manager and individuals comes into play. It is important to note that trust needs to build up, and that takes a little bit of time.”
However, there are compelling reasons why remote working is something to encourage rather than fear.
“Remote work not only improves outcomes and employee branding but is a policy that the most talented employees desire,” say business consultants Gallup.5
And they’re right. Here are just some of the benefits of remote working.
Remote working can boost employee productivity across varied job roles. A well-known Stanford University study shows a 13% performance increase among call center employees at a Chinese travel agency when they worked from home.6 And 2018 research shows that working remotely has a positive effect on performance for people with complex jobs with low levels of interdependence on others.
Enable business continuity
The coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of being able to work remotely. If people can carry out their tasks from home or another location, businesses can continue to function even if something happens to their premises or people are, for whatever reason, unable to come into work.
With 50% of the workforce having the opportunity to work remotely at least one day a week, any organization that doesn’t offer it as an option is behind the curve. And if your organization doesn’t give the chance to work remotely, you may find yourself losing people to one that does: 54% of office workers say they’d leave their job for one that offers flexible work time.7
Enable a better work-life balance
Remote working is inextricably linked to flexible working. Even if people don’t have more choice over the hours they work, the lack of commute gives them back extra hours. This flexibility is particularly attractive to Millennials, who will make up about 75% of the global workforce by 2025. Research shows that having the option to work from home is the top priority for this age group.8 And that means it needs to be a priority with companies that want to attract them.
Protect the environment
Transport is the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States. And business travel, whether it’s commuting or flying to a conference, contributes to those emissions. By cutting out commuting and encouraging video conferencing, remote working can be an effective way of reducing a company’s carbon footprint. The US Patent and Trademark Office’s policy of allowing patent examiners to work from anywhere, for example, has cut emissions by an estimated 44,000 tons.
Widen your talent pool
Organizations that are looking to hire employees they need on-site at all times face restrictions. If a company is based in an area where housing costs are high, this can be particularly limiting. But if you’re hiring remote employees who don’t have to come in every day – or don’t have to come in at all – you can hire from almost anywhere. People can be working from around the corner or even from overseas. Geography is no barrier to tapping into talent and creating a truly diverse workforce.
Boost employee engagement
People who work remotely have higher levels of engagement than those who don’t.9 They’re happier too: full-time remote workers say they’re happy in their job 22% more than those who never work remotely. Not surprisingly, this makes them more loyal. Those who work remotely say they’re likely to stay in their current job for the next five years - 13% more than on-site workers.10 Given the costs of recruitment, it’s an option that companies can’t afford to ignore.
Reduce real estate costs
Offices are a huge expense for companies. With a larger proportion of teams working remotely, it's possible to reduce these costs considerably. For example, allowing patent examiners for the United States Patent Office to work from anywhere cut office costs by $38.2 million.11
Challenges of working remotely
Much as people want to work remotely, and despite the advantages for companies, it isn’t all roses. Understanding the true nature of the challenges facing remote workers can help businesses take steps to overcome them. There are a number of issues organizations might face.
In one study, 27% of remote workers cited this as their number one challenge. It can be difficult to connect when you’re not in the same room as your colleagues and you can’t meet face to face. Geographical separation also means that remote workers can quickly feel out of the loop with what’s going on in their organization.
Breaking down these barriers is where communication tools come in. Effective video calling and conferencing, instant messaging and group chat give people a choice of communication avenues – not all of them formal and pre-arranged. Communication can evolve to be as organic as it would be if everyone were just a desk away.
Loneliness and isolation
This is one of the biggest issues faced by remote workers, with 19% citing it as a problem.12 It’s an issue for organizations, too, because loneliness mitigates against engagement and productivity.
To be successful, working remotely can’t mean disconnection from the organization and other employees. Managers need to encourage daily check-ins with employees and schedule virtual meetings just as they would on-site, while instant messaging can fill the water cooler conversation niche. Collaboration tools shouldn’t be limited to work tasks but should be used to create social spaces where employees can come together.
Distractions and lack of boundaries
Many people work from home because they want more time to spend on their hobbies or with families. But the lack of a concrete boundary between work and home can lead to distractions, from interruptions by the kids to doing domestic chores during work time. Distraction can happen on-site too, of course. One study shows disturbances at home impact productivity between 15% and 27% of the time. But distractions in the office impact productivity between 20% and 35% of the time. While it’s not possible to exclude interruptions and disturbances completely, organizations should support employees in best practices for setting up their workspaces and scheduling their day.13
While it’s not possible to completely exclude interruptions and disturbances, organizations should support employees in best practices for setting up their workspaces and scheduling their day.
Get more advice on balancing working from home with your personal life.
Knowing when to stop
Remote employees report difficulties in knowing when to unplug and stop working, making work feel never-ending. In one study, 39% of workers reported working longer hours than they were supposed to.14
‘Always on’ working can harm mental health and productivity, so managers need to be clear about the number of hours an employee is to work, even if they have flexibility about when they accomplish them. Time-tracking software will give insight into hours worked, and alarm bells should ring if people are regularly exceeding the maximum.
Impact on creativity
Can creativity be maintained when people are working remotely? When researchers asked marketers in large enterprises about this, 61% said it would be a critical or significant challenge.15 Studies show that remote working can have a positive impact on creative tasks. But, as with on-site work, it's down to organizations to build a creative culture, where people feel empowered to share ideas and where technology enables them to do so, regardless of where they work.
Lack of opportunities to socialize
Even the most enthusiastic supporters of remote working would agree that it can mean people miss out on the fun element of work. Organizations should promote opportunities for face-to-face socializing. And when they’re lacking, a bit of imagination and good communication tools can fill the gap. Virtual coffee breaks, drinks, quizzes, chats, and sharing jokes and memes can all be a part of working remotely and should be encouraged.
Managers nervous about remote working might feel they don’t know exactly what their team is up to – performance management of remote issues is cited as a challenge by 57% of marketers at large enterprises.16 There has to be some trust. And the knowledge that remote working tends to boost productivity should give confidence. Regular check-ins, scheduling of work, and establishing KPIs and targets should help too.
Top tips for working remotely
Working remotely for the first time is a big adjustment. Experienced remote workers know how important it is to have the right place to work – and the right mindset. Here are a few tips to make working remotely work for you.
Find the right space
Whether it’s a room in your home, a shared workspace, or a favorite coffee shop, the environment matters when working remotely. Make sure temperature and noise levels are comfortable for you, you have plenty of space for your equipment, and it’s somewhere you’re not likely to be disturbed. Look for areas that offer natural light to help you feel energized.
Set a schedule
There may be additional flexibility about when people complete tasks when they're working remotely. But it’s important to set some boundaries. This helps people accomplish work within a reasonable timeframe and doesn’t cause stress by bleeding into other areas of life. Managers should set schedules for employees - and those working remotely need to make an effort to stick to them.
It may be tempting to work in your pajamas, but it won’t make you feel professional. And it won’t be a good look on a video call. Clothes influence our mood and emotions, so wear something that makes you feel motivated, professional and confident. Getting dressed for work will also help you mark the distinction between work and home life, helping you switch off when the working day is over.
Plan in breaks
With no prompts to take lunch and coffee breaks, remote workers can find whole days passing in front of a screen. Taking a break is energizing, especially if you can get outside, so set yourself a schedule and make sure every day features at least a walk around the block. If it’s not possible to go out, get some activity going indoors. Walk up and downstairs, exercise to a fitness video, or just do a few stretches to invigorate yourself and get rid of tension.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Working remotely requires more communication – not less. Use instant messaging and group chat to stay in the loop with colleagues and projects, video call into meetings, and above all, check in with colleagues and managers. Even if you’re shy, make an effort to contribute to chat. Many people will be feeling the same way, but getting involved in a remote version of the water-cooler conversation can stave off feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Adjust your communication style
Body language and audio cues can be lacking when you’re not speaking face-to-face. Because of this, communication needs to be more explicit when working remotely. Check your messages for clarity and conciseness to make sure colleagues understand what you mean.
Ask for support
People working alone can find themselves soldiering on with tasks, even if they need help. Managers and their teams should understand that it’s OK to reach out when support is needed – and that it’s the right thing to do. Regular check-ins, with proactive offers of help, are vital.
See more on best practices for working remotely.
The best technology for working remotely
Working remotely can’t work if the right tech isn’t there to facilitate it. Our tech has to provide support in a range of areas.
People need hardware to carry out their work, whether that’s laptops, desktops, tablets, or smartphones. Plus, there are the peripherals, such as keyboards and monitors, that go with them. In addition, some workers may need hardware such as printers. A reasonably fast internet connection, whether fixed or mobile, is another must.
What precisely companies pay for and provide is down to the individual organization, but it should be made explicit in any work from home policy.
Communication and collaboration
Enabling a smooth flow of communication is essential not just for work, but social connection. Tools should support work tasks, fun conversations, and idea-sharing between team members.
With dispersed teams, tools need to reach out and join up whole organizations and the individuals in them: They should be powerful enough to broadcast a CEO’s speech and precise enough to enable one-to-one conversations between colleagues.
Videoconferencing and audio capabilities will ideally be included in your collaboration tool. This will remove the need for standalone voice calling applications.
Web-based software will allow project managers to organize and track projects while employees work on them simultaneously. Ideally, look for software that will integrate with your collaboration tools to eliminate the need for multiple sign-ins.
By 2022, the global mobile workforce is expected to reach 1.87 billion workers. If you’ve got people working on the move, like salespeople out in the field, your tech needs to support them. That means the software has to be fully mobile and accessible via any device.
A variety of cloud-based applications are available, and again, these should integrate with your communication tools. If you require remote workers to have access to your business network, using a VPN can ensure security, speed and reliability. Make sure this is accessible via all devices.
Security is an issue in remote teams, especially if they’re using their own devices. All devices should have antivirus software and firewalls installed. Remote workers should only use secure WiFi connections, and organizations should have protocols around passwords and authentication.
Managing remote workers
Managing a remote team is demanding. And it’s different.
You might be managing someone you’re used to working with on-site who is now working remotely. Or you might be managing people you’ve never seen outside of a video call. So there are challenges. And managers new to remote working may need to adjust their style to meet them.
Trust is the cornerstone of the remote worker-manager relationship. “Remote-work success depends heavily on whether you trust employees to do their work even if you can’t see them,” says Aaron McEwan, Vice President of business consultants, Gartner.
But in a poll carried out by that organization, 76% of HR leaders said the top employee complaint during the coronavirus outbreak was management concerns about team productivity and engagement when working remotely.17
Managers need to keep in mind evidence showing remote working leads to more productivity and greater engagement. And they need to put systems in place that facilitate and engender trust.
Connecting is crucial
Managers may assume that because they’re not sharing physical space with their teams, they can be more hands-off. In fact, the opposite is true. Research shows that increased contact between remote workers and supervisors helps with engagement and motivation.18 So when starting to manage remote workers, managers need to set up ways of making sure this communication happens.
“Communicate frequently and celebrate every small win,” says Sam Walters. “There are so many ways to stay in touch digitally. Invest in creative measures to keep people engaged and know that you’re there. I usually use video conference as it’s easy to get stuck behind a phone where people can’t see your reactions or what you’re thinking and feeling.”
Communication isn’t something that should be left to chance. Schedule in at least one daily team meeting to catch up with what everyone is doing and make sure you’re all on track. Also schedule regular, frequent catch-ups with individual team members to surface and deal with any issues. Isolation can be a problem for remote workers. Be aware of this and listen carefully to what people are saying so you can pick up on any issues.
Traditional ways of working don’t necessarily apply to remote teams. Managers and workers need to agree on processes that work for both sides. When should check-ins be? What are the core hours when people must be available? What communication channels should people use for what purposes?
Just as you would with an in-house team, make sure remote employees understand what you want them to accomplish. “Set clear goals for the week. People should know from Monday to Friday what they need to get done, so come 5.30 on Friday, they can log off,” says Sam Walters.
Set realistic, measurable objectives and goals for your team and track performance against these. Various software programs can help with this. Make clear what processes will be for communication and giving feedback.
Be aware that flexibility is implicit in remote working. So you may need to focus more on outcomes rather than when people are carrying out activities.
It’s easy for remote workers to feel out on a limb. Without being able to pick up information by merely being around their colleagues, they can end up feeling detached from both the organization and the wider team.
Make sure you update your team regularly and don’t make assumptions about what they know. Use communication tools to cascade information from across the organization as well as around specific tasks. A lively company news feed, for example, can help keep remote workers in the loop.
Building your remote team
Your remote employees need to work together as well as with you. Break down barriers and encourage collaboration and teamwork by using communication tools that promote sharing. Pay attention to scheduling so you can get everyone together regularly on a video call. And, even if your team is fully remote, try to get everyone together at least once a year.
Learn these tips on holding virtual team meetings.
Read our remote working guide for managers.
Putting together a work from home policy
Get everyone on the same page with a formal policy for remote working. Areas to look at include:
- Remote working schedules. Who can work remotely, when they can do it, what hours you expect them to keep
- Premises. Where people can carry out remote working
- Equipment. What is needed, what the company will and will not provide, who is responsible for equipment, how it will be maintained, stored and insured, and can employees use their own devices?
- Security. The security requirements for hardware and software, physical security of working premises, any existing security policies remote employees must abide by
- Health and safety. How you will carry out risk assessments in line with local regulations
- Performance management. How you track hours, KPIs, objective setting, appraisals, and feedback mechanisms
- Allowances. Whether remote working expenses are payable and if so, the limits of what you will pay
- Expectations of remote employees. Frequency of contact, taking breaks, working from a suitable space, communication with other team members
Remote working and company culture
Encouraging teamwork and creativity can be challenging when people are working remotely. The break-out spaces many offices have where creative thinking happens are lacking, and it’s easy for people to disappear into their remote working worlds.
But with a bit of imagination, it’s possible to spark creativity and encourage camaraderie. Training, for example, can make people come together. And with webinar technology or Live video broadcasts, there’s no reason for it not to happen just because people aren’t in the same room.
Take a look at these tips for hosting virtual events.
Use communication tools to constantly share ideas and best practices, commiserate with colleagues when things go wrong and congratulate them when things go right – just like you would if they were a desk away. And do fun things too: Working remotely doesn’t mean not enjoying yourself with colleagues.
“We can still maintain the culture, ensuring we’re interacting and making remote working fun,” says Ruman Gill, Senior Press Officer at Robert Walters, of remote working during the coronavirus pandemic. “For example, we recently posted ‘Guess whose remote working place this is’ on our intranet with pictures.
“We want to make remote working effective and fun while maintaining our usual business and keeping ahead of the market. We’re also distributing a lot of market intel for our clients, meaning that we are always in touch with our clients at these challenging times.”