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The opportunities and challenges of remote work

New mindsets for new workplaces...

Technology is changing the American workplace, requiring both managers and employees to adapt. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of people telecommuting in the US increased by 115%, according to a report by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics. That means that four million Americans, or 2.9% of the total workforce, work from home at least half the time. And it’s not just technology companies pushing a Silicon Valley lifestyle: the biggest employer of telecommuters is actually the US government, at 3.1%.

Telecommuting is growing far faster than any other commute mode and estimates state that employers can save up to $11,000 per employee, per year, by allowing their employees to work from home. It’s clear that flexible working and telecommuting will only become more common in the future.

Yet there are serious drawbacks, hidden behind the savings in time and money. American business is a collaborative enterprise, one that lives or dies on how well members of the team can understand and cooperate with each other. But synergy can be difficult to achieve when 40% of remote employees feel disconnected from their company’s strategic direction and supervisors are 9% more likely to consider on-site employees hard-working and dependable, and thus worthy of promotion. Furthermore, individual telecommuters have reported struggling personally with work-life balance, with 53% of respondents in a 2012 Reuters poll claiming that the blurred boundaries between work and personal time increased family conflict.

At this crossroads of technological progress and American work culture, the solution must come from within businesses themselves. Allowing remote work risks impeding cooperation amongst employees, sacrificing company culture, and even losing individual productivity to loneliness and procrastination. But mandating that all employees come on-site, especially if this reverses a previous remote policy, can have negative impacts on morale and hurt competitiveness in tight fields of recruitment. What works for one business may not work for another, as seen when Yahoo famously recalled all remote employees to be on-site in 2013, a drastic move that ultimately did little to forestall its demise as an independent company three years later.

The answer to the difficult question of remote work is to develop and implement new management practices in an organic way, empowering supervisors and project managers to create individual solutions for their teams. With the right approach, it is absolutely possible to forge effective business relationships and committed team dynamics between individuals spread across the nation and globe.

A particularly large-scale example is the intricate global supply chain maintained by Apple, Inc. in order to produce cutting-edge technology. As a California-based company, they must responsibly source raw materials and secure contracts on multiple continents to actually build the devices. Furthermore, they have fostered long-term business relationships through linguistic and cultural barriers, to ensure that components are manufactured, assembled, and delivered in time for launch, often when those components are brand-new technology. Apple’s continuing global success shows clearly that business can be done and relationships sustained by virtual means.

There are even more drastic examples to be found. Automattic, Inc., the company behind the popular website and blog creation site WordPress.com, is a fully distributed organization. 100% of their 245 employees work from home, or wherever they happen to be. While this has presented them with a unique series of challenges, Automattic has found that overcoming the difficulties of communicating through the Internet produced a stronger culture of communication overall. They also report a strong advantage in hiring top talent, simply because they don’t ask anybody to relocate. While Automattic’s model is not one-size-fits-all, given that they offer a fully virtual service, their ability to operate an entire company over the Internet further demonstrates the viability of telecommuting in the right circumstances.

The greatest pitfall in making the decision of remote work, is the decision itself. A top-down attitude is not sufficient to the challenge of integrating modern technology and flexible working styles. There are areas in which telecommuting lives up to the advertised benefits of improved morale and job satisfaction, just as there are projects in which the lack of face-to-face communication can be detrimental.

It comes down to the people involved and the goals of the project itself, factors that are difficult to account for when decisions are made from the top. The ability for a supervisor to determine the best approach for their own projects and employees is essential to successfully implementing telecommuting policies. Moderate solutions such as flexible schedules that mix remote and on-site work or organizing occasional team-building days to introduce and bond a remote-working team, can reap the benefits of telecommuting while mitigating the drawbacks.

As supervisors and managers are empowered to organize and oversee flexible work styles, it is equally important that they be provided with technological tools to bridge the gap between office and home. With the right encouragement, the team dynamics threatened by telecommuting can be recreated over the Internet. Finding tools like Yammer, which creates something akin to an internal Twitter and replicates the common social experience of the office water cooler, can be key. Encouraging the casual use of video-conferencing technology like Skype and Facetime can also bridge the social gap, without requiring anybody to leave their chairs. Fostering company culture over the internet requires committed effort, but if given the right tools, a good team can be just as collaborative and productive on opposite coasts as they are in the same room.

American business is a team sport. The effective company is the one composed of a dedicated team of cooperative professionals, working together towards a clearly defined goal. That hasn’t changed in the last hundred years, and it won’t change in the next hundred, either. What will change is the way in which that team communicates, bonds, and works together. Today’s telecommunications tools, which seem powerful, may be obsolete as soon as five years from now. The companies that take advantage of these advancements will be the ones that consciously evolve their management strategies to match. The solution is one of moderation, neither operating as a disconnected network of remote employees nor demanding full-time office attendance.

In business as in nature, we all must adapt in order to survive.

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