Big Companies Are Calling Employees Back. Could Cultural Craftsmanship Save Remote Work?
IBM, one of the first big corporations to roll out a robust telecommuting policy, reversed its position on remote workers last year, telling its employees to either move to a city with an IBM office or find a new job. This move sparked a reassessment of remote workers in general. If IBM doesn’t believe in remote work anymore, some executives might reason, why should anybody?
In a statement about its new policy, IBM cited “the changing nature of work” and the need for more collaboration as reasons for its reversal. For executives looking for more collaboration, more in-office employees can seem appealing — after all, traditional in-office employees (including managers and executives) tend to communicate more effectively with employees in the same office as them.
While this tendency can be hard to break, it shouldn’t be a death sentence for your company’s remote work program. There are ways to get just as much productivity and collaboration out of your remote employees as those you see in person every day. It just takes a different leadership strategy.
The Case for Remote Workers
Certainly, remote work creates some of its own challenges. According to a OnePulse survey of more than 1,000 U.K. employees, communication and collaboration “declined immensely when working from home” among 80 percent of respondents.
But a remote work program also solves some of the most perplexing problems that executives face. For the right people, working from home can allow for an increase in productivity and a decrease in stress. Depending on your location and type of office, maintaining an office for all your employees can cost anywhere between $4,000 and $14,000 per year per worker. This cost can easily turn into additional profit if you’re able to engage remote workers.
As a CEO and president, I personally favor the model that allows flexibility to work remotely for specific tasks. I work remotely one day a week to accomplish things that require focused time, which I’m able to find more easily outside the office. Some positions might lend themselves to remote work more than others. For example, external sales positions might not need a designated office and can instead stop by on a designated weekday for meetings. Other positions might allow for half of the tasks to be accomplished remotely with collaboration conducted via emails and instant messaging.
The bottom line is this: Developing an effective remote work program requires you to craft a supportive, collaborative culture throughout your company. And wouldn’t doing that make you a more effective CEO anyway?
Aligning Remote Work With Your Business Model
Here are a few strategies that I’ve found particularly effective in aligning remote work policies with our business model:
Set up the proper equipment and tools.
Our accounting manager has three small children and often needs to change her schedule to take care of unpredictable parenting duties. We outfitted her with a laptop and docking station so she can work from the office or remotely as needed. She appreciates the flexibility in hours and her ability to work remotely, and as a result, she’s much more happy and engaged with the company than she would be if we only allowed her to work from the office.
She’s not alone. In fact, a study from TINYpulse and Owl Labs shows that 51 percent of remote employees report that they have an improved work-life balance. Their increased engagement might come from the clearer boundaries and work habits that allow them to be successful working remotely.
Find the right meeting technology.
There are many software tools that allow for remote collaboration across multiple locations. Our preference is Zoom, a videoconference technology that our staff finds especially easy to use. We use the software for our live weekly meetings, which we then record and make available for anyone who was unable to attend the meeting.
Successful managers understand that routine communication is critical for remote employees. Make sure you check in with them frequently using technology that makes it easy for everyone.
Ensure your performance management system and process supports remote work.
Set clear expectations for your objectives and goals, and ensure your performance management system will track employee progress. You can implement an online tool or use something as simple as Microsoft Office to track metrics and progress.
It’s also important to ensure managers are setting up one-on-one meetings with remote staff. These qualitative conversations might uncover something that your performance management system missed.
Have a written company policy for all staff.
Having a single, authoritative document spelling out your remote work program can be immensely helpful. Some employers believe they have the tools and resources in place for remote workers but ultimately lack a formal policy.
The written policy should help answer the questions that can trip up a successful remote work program. For example, if the employee is using his or her own equipment to access your network, will a VPN be required? If something doesn’t work, is IT support available? Will you pay some portion of their ISP costs? Will phone costs be reimbursed? Having a written policy to help answer these questions will clear up confusion that could slow your employees down later.
Make sure your remote work policy is supported across your leadership team.
Not having this type of support can and will cause conflict. Your leadership team should be ambassadors for the program that you ultimately put in place, and having the enthusiastic support of your leadership team and management will help mitigate negative workplace politics that can accompany a poorly thought-out remote work plan.
In one study, 84 percent of remote workers said that when they had a problem with a co-worker, it lasted for a few days, and 47 percent admitted to letting it go on for weeks. Your leadership team will be in charge of this conflict resolution, so you’ll need them to buy in and effectively manage the day-to-day collaboration between your remote and in-office teams.
Many companies feel that collaboration is now a key part of productivity. They’re not wrong, but bringing everyone back in-house isn’t the only solution. As long as you have a plan to keep your employees engaged and focused, the benefits of remote work still outweigh the challenges.
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