Monday January 20, 2014
Remote working has been hitting the headlines. Marissa Mayer brought the topic to the forefront in 2013 when she controversially ended Yahoo!’s long standing policy of remote working. Her view being that by doing this it would help the business build the right kind of culture. There have been many supporters of Mayer’s changes however there are also many detractors with numerous people believing this change has created poor morale, disengagement, reduced creativity and dis-trust. The Yahoo! incident has already long been debated, for or against Meyers policy it’s time to take a closer look at the changing world of work and remote working and how, if done right, it can be of benefit to your organisation’s bottom line.
In today’s world remote working for many industries, particularly technology and digital companies, is a way of life. However, it means different things to different organisations and industries. For example, remote working is prevalent in contract catering, where there is often a dispersed workforce, however for these employees this is less likely to mean working outside of the ‘main workplace’ though these individuals may still be managed remotely and have limited contact with other departments.
Research from the Confederation of Business Industry shows that remote working has increased dramatically over the last decade, with nearly 60 per cent of British companies now offering some kind of remote working. And why shouldn’t they? With the technology available to us today people can work more quickly and efficiently than ever before; anywhere and at any time and keep in touch with colleagues easily. However, this opens up a whole host of possibilities, and potentially challenges, around how people work and deliver organisational goals and how business leaders effectively monitor and drive performance.
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of 37Signals, who have built a successful business with a team working remotely in various countries and on various different time zones, explore some of these advantages, and disadvantages, in their book ‘Remote: Office not required’. They highlight how remote working has enabled them to hire a more diverse range of talented individuals, retain great people who feel trusted and have more control over their work/life balance and create a more efficient culture through less face to face meetings and menial interruptions. It has also helped to reduce commuting times; freeing up their employees’ time and benefiting the environment, plus attract talent and build a strong employer brand. Ultimately it has helped them to create a more successful business and to promote a better quality of life for their employees, which, in a world where stress at work is estimated to cost the British economy about £100 billion a year in lost output, is certainly not just a ‘nice’ measure but a commercial one too.
However, remote working is not without its challenges. To ensure success, it is key that the culture is right and that everyone is clear on organisational vision, values and what needs to be achieved. There needs to be trust (so it’s important to hire the right people in the first place) and your leaders need to be brought in on the idea and clear on the on the benefits and how to manage the challenges. The stronger your culture is; the less supervision and training will be required. This can be tricky and so it is important that there is clarity from the start and leaders communicate the importance of trust and ‘how things are done around here’ on an ongoing basis.
For many organisations a full steam ahead approach to remote working may not be advisable. It is recommended to pilot this with a team/department whose style of work naturally lends itself to remote working or for talented individuals, for whom this would really engage and support and who the organisation wants to retain. Of course, not every role can be carried out with ease remotely. For example face to face customer service roles. However, in some instances there may be room for manoeuvre with flexibility around working hours. If it’s not possible it’s about being open and honest and being as fair and realistic as possible. If there’s a clear business case it will be easier for people to understand.
It is also key that relevant systems are in place and the ‘do’s and don’ts’ are clearly agreed. Things are going to be inefficient if there is not an effective means to access key documentation easily or if colleagues’ contact details are not quickly and easily available. There may need to be some investment in decent conference call equipment and tools like Skype and WebEx (a tool which enables individuals to screenshare). As the Chartered Management Institute advocates; ‘Create a 'water cooler' equivalent on a shared access site for social chit-chat on non-work topics – encourage this – send the message that social chat is OK just as it would be in an office’. Employees who are working outside the office need to be willing to invest in a suitable work environment – somewhere comfortable and free of distractions where they can be productive. Regular check-ins with key colleagues should also be agreed and maintained, as after all, nobody likes to feel invisible or unwanted. Being organised is key!
Remote working might not appeal to everyone and these people’s performance needs must be catered for as well (ask your people and see what they think). Also remote working should, ideally, not become a constant state of affairs – face to face time is still important to drive productivity. As a leader spending time with your people, including time to take part in team building and social activities, can be great for morale and engagement and help ensure that you’re in the know so that any hiccups can be ironed out promptly.
Ultimately, remote working cannot be ignored so make sure that it’s on your agenda for review. Look into it if you’ve not implemented it before and, if you have already, keep re-evaluating to make sure it works for everyone and that you have the best systems and tools at your fingertips to support high performance. Fried and Heinemeier Hansson conclude their book by saying: ‘remote work is here, and it’s here to stay. The only question is whether you’ll be part of the early adopters, the early majority, or the laggards?’.
So what do you think…Are we at a tipping point when it comes to remote working?
Sally is Purple Cubed’s Senior Business Advisor, to debate remote working or any other people challenges drop her an email on firstname.lastname@example.org