talent and teleworkIt is clear we are all working remotely more often. Better access to broadband, cloud services and changing management practices are all leading to a much more flexible working environment for millions of professionals. However, every now and then, the debate is sparked afresh. Consider then these two statements by well respected CEOs:

Matt Mullenweg in Harvard Business Review

Automattic employs 225 people. We’re located all over the world, in 190 different cities. We have a headquarters in San Francisco and it operates similar to a co-working space. For those who live in the Bay Area, they can work from the office, if they’d like. But in general, the majority of our employees work somewhere other than our home base.

Marissa Mayer on Yahoo!’s telecommuting policy

“I need to talk about the elephant in the room.” Immediately an image of a purple elephant, with large while letters “WFH” (work from home) painted on its side, appeared on projection screens in the hotel auditorium.She repeated a key phrase the company used in a statement it released after the memo was leaked: “It’s not what’s right for Yahoo right now,” and added “It was wrongly perceived as an industry narrative.”

So, many companies believe the advantages of remote working significantly outweigh the disadvantages, while acknowledging exceptions.

A global workforce regardless of size

Technology is supporting collaboration and communication as never before. There are a growing number of apps to support remote working, including new video-conferencing, document-sharing and quick messaging. Cloud-based systems means that everyone has instant access to the same documents, no matter where they are. Given the number of office-based workers who admit to emailing someone on the next desk, co-location is clearly no guarantee of good communication.

With remote working, national boundaries start to lose their significance. You can employ the best in the world from all around the world. This is particularly important for start-ups, who need to gather great talent, but without going to great expense.

Let’s just unpick the whole concept of remote working a little. Research shows that the majority of remote workers are older men, and that they are doing their remote work on top of a full week in the office. So remote working, for them, is enabling them to do their overtime at home. That’s not really what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about not having an office at all, but instead, having remote teams, each of which is spread across countries and time zones. This is obviously going to work best for teams that are very well supported technologically. But plenty of companies are now choosing to work this way, such as Working Mums, an employment agency in the UK, which no longer has a central London office. Crowdsourcing is another example of working across national boundaries to access a global workforce.

Other companies are using remote workers around the world as a way to ensure that customers can always contact someone when they wish to do so. If you only have a US office, your customers in the Far East and Europe cannot get in touch for some part of their day. But a few remote workers in those locations, and your customers have instant access.

The ideal remote workers

There are challenges to overcome, both for companies and individuals, before remote working is feasible. First, for individuals. Remote working is not for everyone. Remote workers have to be more self-disciplined, and also more flexible. With team members around the world, everyone has to be prepared to have the odd phone call at unlikely times of day. 9–5 isn’t going to work in this new world. They also need to be more transparent about what they’re doing, sharing work and collaborating. They also need to be really good communicators. With only telephone, email and video tools, building relationships and trust is harder and needs much more work. It takes longer to build a similar level of trust, but taking this time will pay dividends, because the relationship so built will be based on shared work values, not shared chats around the coffee machine, and the team will be more productive.

For companies, the challenge is about whether they are prepared to put in the investment. Everyone, from management down, does need to buy into the ideas, and it takes time to show results. It also seems likely that there is a critical mass of remote workers, beyond which remote working becomes the norm rather than the exception. Before that point is reached, there will always be suspicion that remote workers are ‘skiving’ or ‘not pulling their weight’, This is usually from fellow employees rather than managers. It creates discontent, and needs to be managed. There will also be issues about the work required to communicate well with remote workers, and keep them engaged. But once beyond the critical mass, companies may well find it’s the best move they ever made, allowing them to recruit and retain the best in the world regardless of their location.

Looking ahead

Remote working can be extremely beneficial for companies and individuals, but it does take effort on both parts. Technology is only part of the story. The question for companies and individuals alike is whether they are prepared to make the investment to reap the benefits.

Image credit: Illusion by Hajar Khalid Al Akoor

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