Why It’s Time to Allow Employees to Work Remotely

I’m an on-again, off-again digital nomad. For the past two and a half years, I’ve been living in a regular house in a regular town. But I’ve recently packed all my belongings into storage and began an indeterminate trip around the world. So it’s on again. (Follow my nomadic lifestyle on my shiny new blog.)

I’ve worked in big and small offices for big and small companies and lived abroad as a nomad. I’ve slaved away in the most oppressive basement cubicle, been productive on the shores of sunny Italian towns and everything in between. It’s always been clear to me that I’m vastly more productive and valuable to my employers when I’m living abroad in nomad mode. No soul-killing cubicle. No stressful commute. No sick buildings. No constant interruptions. No time-wasting chit-chat with multiloquent office mates.

I’ve also managed hundreds of people over my career. I’ve hired, fired, supervised, mentored, promoted, led, fed and motivated. So I understand resistance to allowing remote workers.

If you’ve been resisting, it’s time to reconsider. It’s a new world.

Why the time for remote workers has come at last

The trend toward remote work is a nebulous and slow one. While everyone focuses on company policy or permission to allow remote work, the reality is that work is already being done remotely.

According to the most recent U.S. Department of Labor survey, 23 percent of everyone in America with a job did some or all of their work from home in 2014. That’s up from 19 percent in 2013. A new report hasn’t come out for 2015, but chance are that it’s now well over one-quarter of the population.

You might do a survey of your own to find out how many of the people on your team or in your company do at least some work at home, at Starbucks or in other locations beyond the office. Chance are, it’s 100%.

This fact challenges the idea that people have to be directly supervised to prevent them from goofing off.

Another challenge to that idea is that goofing off tends to happen online. So even if you’re watching employees “work,” there’s no guarantee that work is getting done. They may only look like they’re working but in fact might be posting selfies, shopping on Amazon or playing games.

A 15Five survey found that the number of companies where every employee comes to work to the office has dropped to around half. And 10% of companies have no offices at all (everyone works remotely).

It’s probably no surprise that 21% reported that productivity improved when teams worked remotely. But what’s truly surprising is that 63% of respondents said communication with remote employees was the same or better than with in-house employees.

The culture is changing in favor of remote work. And that’s being driven by technology.

One big change is the use of Slack and other new collaborative systems. Whether workers are remote or not, teams are living, working and collaborating in Slack and relying less on face-to-face meetings. If one or a few members of a Slack-centric team transitions to remote work, the team doesn’t miss a beat. It’s all happening in Slack anyway, not the meatspace office.

And face-to-face meetings are less compelling in the face of a world of telecommuting options, from a simple Skype connection all the way up to the Cadillac of conferencing systems, Oblong Industry’s Mezzanine system. And it’s only going to get better when new, super affordable solutions like Microsoft’s Surface Hub come out over the next year.

Three kinds of distractions

As an employer or manager, you’re not afraid of remote work per se. You’re rightly concerned about distraction. Specifically, you don’t want to pay someone to be distracted all day doing other things besides helping your company reach its goals.

Let’s unpack this concern.

There are three kinds of distractions that affect productivity:

1. Online distractions – social media, memes, games, shopping, porn, cat photos

2. Offline distractions – socializing, personal chores and errands, cats

3. Mental distraction – stress, worry, daydreaming, thinking about cats

Managers tend to worry about the first two, when in fact they should be most concerned about the third one — mental distraction.

The invisible world of an employee’s mental state and thought process either drives them to seek out other forms of distraction, or it doesn’t. And the human mind rebels from sameness — same desk, same office, same routine. That rebellion drives people to distraction.

A remote worker, especially one who varies work locations (coffee shops or travel) is far less likely to be mentally distracted. They’ll spend less time commuting and more time with loved ones, so they’ll be happier. They’ll waste less money on commuting and dry cleaning and restaurant food and so should have less financial stress. They’ll be more relaxed and may have more control over their time.

In our world of easy distractions, the most valuable practice for anyone trying to accomplish anything is what author Cal Newport calls “Deep Work,” the ability to concentrate profoundly and for hours on the task at hand. Deep work is almost impossible in an office. But it’s easier for remote workers.

There’s also a huge benefit to you and your department or company.

When you allow or require employees to work remotely, they’re free to move to a place where the cost of living is both better and cheaper. You break the conundrum employees have of being forced to live in a dirty, noisy, crowded and expensive city in order to get a good job.

Also: When you hire, you no longer have to choose from among the best qualified in the area, and instead can choose from the best qualified in the world.

And you can probably hire a better candidate for less money (if their cost of living is lower and if remote work makes the position more desirable).

You could also benefit from having employees in multiple time zones. Your company could work around the clock, and attend all the conferences or meet all the customers, while saving on travel expenses all the while.

If you’ve resisted remote working for some or all of your employees — or for yourself — it’s time to reconsider. The culture has changed. The technology has changed. The world has changed.


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