After many learned fast to work from home during the pandemic, organizations now face a more deliberate choice on how to conduct business. How much do we really need to be in the office – if at all?
The quest has provoked high-profile battles between employees and management. Apple employees petitioned to keep their flexible work arrangements.
It may be complex to offer employees the choice to come into the office or work remotely – often called ‘hybrid work’ – tempting businesses to impose a set schedule for all. Big tech companies such as Google and Tesla are driving hard to get their employees in the office more often. Twitter offers full-time remote work if employees want it, but such arrangements are usually limited to techy start-ups.
Why and how might other kinds of businesses go fully remote? At the heart of this question is trust between employees and management. I wrote in my book, You lead: How being yourself makes you a better leader, “Building trust is the critical glue to keep workflow and outputs effective.” The intention to go fully remote must address three elements – in order of importance: Employee engagement, customer benefit and business results.
Remote work upsides and downsides
For some companies or teams, remote work is appealing because it means access to a wider workforce. Going 100 percent remote eliminates all the costs of having a head office.
A Capgemini Research Institute study in 2020 showed remote work may reduce overheads by up to 48 percent.
The remote option may be obvious for tech companies like pure ecommerce businesses or software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers, especially if they’re already interacting with all clients digitally. But there will always be industries where fully remote just doesn’t work – even desk-based businesses like legal may need central secure storage for documents.
Even for a techy workforce, fully remote isn’t easy and needs careful consideration. For example, work from anywhere (WFA) is different than work from home (WFH) or work from a specific geographic region. A Flexjobs study showed 95 percent of remote jobs still require a location.
It’s also easy to get lured into remote work because of the savings or because employees want it. Some companies, including Google, Twitter and Facebook, want to pay remote workers less, and some employees are willing to accept lower pay for remote work’s convenience and flexibility. But different pay for remote and in-office workers will introduce a challenging variable in optimizing performance and recognizing contributions. Office-based workers already get greater recognition and credit than those who work from home.
A two-year Stanford study on remote work released in 2017 showed a 13 percent productivity gain and reduced turnover in employees working remotely, compared with their in-office counterparts. But the study didn’t consider customer success or long-term employee satisfaction, and over half the remote workers felt isolated and wanted to return to the office at least sometimes.
Productivity gains can also be elusive, depending on existing culture, sector and processes. The report Killing Time at Work ’22 testifies to many companies’ poor practice in trying to make working remotely function well.
Study author Tariq Rauf, CEO of team software provider Qatalog, wrote, “Digital presenteeism is pervasive, with employees working an extra hour each day to show they’re still online and contributing, due to fear colleagues and bosses will think they aren’t working hard enough.”
Who’s going fully remote?
Few well-known companies have opted for fully remote. In Flexjobs’ top 30 companies with the most work-from-anywhere job postings, recognizable names include Wikimedia and Airbnb. Then there are less well-known tech brands like open-source research and development provider Protocol Labs, services like content moderators ModSquad and naturally remote companies like Study.com for online learning.
None are traditional businesses, suggesting legacy companies are staunchly anchored to their offices. So, leaders considering moving their whole organization or a team to fully remote work should consider these elements.
1. Build trust and improve communication
First, above all else, answer honestly: How much do you trust your team or workforce, and how much do they trust you and other leaders?
Establishing trust and rapport is always important in business, but in remote conditions, you must be more attentive and intentional in fostering and retaining trust.
Communications are particularly important, especially informal exchanges and channels. For example, when will you have a casual check-in to talk about more personal affairs and less official work?
Regardless of the tech infrastructure or software, allow space for conversations without a specific agenda and times for expressions of joy and frustration.
Tyree D. Mitchell, author of Searching for trust in the global economy with Jeanne M. Brett, says, “To unite a team, create a team charter representing how the team works as partners. Explain your objective, role and how people should communicate and be accountable.” He also suggests taking into account cultural norms and differences around building trust when dealing with an international team.
2. Make your intentions clear
If going 100 percent remote is a radical departure from the past, be honest about the company’s intention. Will it help achieve strategic goals? How does it relate to the company’s overall purpose? Does it help your environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals? If your motivation is largely cutting cost through less or no office space, or improving efficiencies and productivity (for example, by eliminating commuting,) double-down on employee engagement and customer satisfaction.
There are many reasons offices appeal to some people, like teamwork, socializing and status. Being transparent and including your team in your decision-making process will help the transformation succeed.
Your action plan
In constructing your action plan to go fully remote, there are five key considerations. First, take an honest look at your existing culture – how you communicate and behave, workflows and levels of trust. What should you keep and what needs changing? Second, involve your team in your decision-making around the transition. Third, consider carefully how to best serve your customers, including how to gain and onboard new ones. Fourth, embrace the messiness! Ensure constant feedback and stay flexible to work through challenges.
Finally, ensure you have the right technologies to facilitate workflows and teamwork needed for customer success. Prioritise cybersecurity when choosing your tech and give your staff regular training in how to keep your business cyber safe.