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16 Min Read

Working Remotely: Ideal Work Environment Or Threat To Culture And Employee Productivity?

David Hassell, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of 15Five

The traditional office landscape is changing and has been for quite some time, but the degree to which it should be shifting is subject to debate. Many employees consider their local coffee shop to be the ideal work environment, while traditional company leaders consider remote work to be a threat to their ability to manage employees. Perhaps Gallup CEO Jim Clifton said it best in the 2017 State of the American Workforce Report: “The very practice of management no longer works.”

Risky or not, increased telework seems to be the growing trend. Gallup reports that employees working remotely at least part-time grew from 39% in 2012 to 43% in 2016. The willingness to leave employers for others who offer this option is even larger. According to Softchoice’s 2017 study Collaboration Unleashed, 74% of workers would switch jobs for the opportunity to work off site more often.

Millennials are the usual suspects for so many global trends these days. With this demographic capturing the largest share of today’s employee base, a Gen Y disruption of workplace status quo is no exception. While remote work is neither new nor demo-specific, younger generations in particular are looking for more flexibility.

It’s easy to see why when you consider modern technological conveniences. Conveniences, mind you, that most have never not had access to in their careers (and for even later bloomers, in their entire lives). In fact, Softchoice found Millennials twice as likely to feel more productive and better equipped working at home than Baby Boomers.

Follow the logic to its natural conclusion and the inevitable question for this segment must therefore be, “Why not?”

What is the ideal work environment anyway?

The enhanced ability to communicate and operate has in many ways created an always-on, always-available expectation from employers in various industries. For the most part, today’s employees—especially tech-savvy younger ones—accept this reality. In return, they often want greater leeway in how and where they work.

Employers have responded. More progressive companies recognize how this give-and-take can be a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting talent. In many places, remote-work opportunities are no longer just a luxury option, they’re a standard feature.

And we can’t discount the impact of environment on producing high quality or creative work. Take for example the relatively recent spawning of the Digital Nomad. These world-traveling workers are often inspired by the changing landscape, inspiration that pours over into their work product. In an age when creativity is a competitive advantage for businesses, shouldn’t we allow people to work where the inspiration lies?

That said, remote work is not for every person or every organization. One study by Upwork discovered that 57% of companies still lack some sort of remote policy. For some, the nature of the business precludes out-of-office work for practical, legal, or security reasons. And this is okay, it’s not like employees across the board are abandoning their traditional workspaces like sinking ships. According to BambooHR, 79% of workers still believe they accomplish their best work at the office as of 2016.

This doesn’t mean they don’t want the option to change up the scenery, though, as we’ve seen from Gallup and Softchoice. Companies offer a range of options from flexible hours, to a few days a week out of the office, to full-time off-site duty. In any scenario, businesses must strike a balance between location leniency and adherence to established expectations to create an ideal work environment that works for them.

If you’re an organization that doesn’t operate out of a secure compound and can afford to consider relaxing in-office requirements for your people, there are all kinds of factors to kick around with your team. Two of the bigger ones have to do with employee productivity and work culture. Let’s address the main hot buttons for each.

Remote worker productivity

For more conservative leaders, one of the first things they’ll point to when the topic of remote work surfaces is impact to output. Slacking off, general disconnect among teammates, and the stunting of employee development are all common claims in these circles. The truth is, this kind of doom and gloom tends to be unwarranted. Employee productivity doesn’t have to suffer simply because work is performed outside of HQ.

Let’s put this in perspective. Were productivity to come to a standstill every time people left for the day, no school in the free world would assign homework, encourage off-site study groups, or conduct online classes. If kids—i.e., those learning full time with little to no other responsibilities—can handle the task, adults can as well. With few exceptions, their livelihoods depend on it.

However, flexibility on this scale goes hand in hand with accountability. Working remotely in most cases is a privilege, not a right. And it appears employees have been doing a nice job earning this privilege based on Global Workplace Analytics’s 2015 US Census Bureau survey.

Results showed that the work-at-home, non-self-employed population has grown 10 times as fast as the rest of the workforce since 2005. Had there been a corresponding uproar over plummeting productivity rates, it’s hard to imagine that networking technology leaders such as former Citrix CEO Kirill Tatarinov would still be predicting that a full 50% of the workforce will be remote by 2020.

The key is understanding that a productive environment means different things to different people. Next to every person whose workday motor thrives on working in-house there are three others who feel stifled by the cubicle life. For them, inspiration and motivation come from home, the local overpriced coffee shop, a beachfront villa… in other words, from elsewhere. If productivity is the end goal, why enforce a certain means to that end if it’s not absolutely critical for your business?

If you’re toying with offering remote-work opportunities, include these 3 productivity fundamentals in your consideration set:

1) Make sure critical technology is in place. When it comes to inter-office collaboration and remote work, there are literally dozens of proven platforms out there that can support your efforts. These include platforms for communication (Slack), project management (Asana), document sharing (Google Docs), and other business functions. All enable real-time collaboration, automate certain mundane tasks so employees can concentrate on meaningful work, and virtually eliminate the need for in-person project management.

2) Establish regular check-ins. Create a once-a-week ritual to regroup as a team or have 1-on-1 meetings with direct reports at intervals that make sense for your business. For remote workers, this is the best way to stay up to date on what’s happening around the company. For managers, it ensures they know how employees are faring, both on deliverables and in general. And don’t just do it over text or instant message. Seeing faces and hearing voices allows you to pick up on the subtleties like voice inflection and body language, so that you can also feel what employees aren’t saying.

The number one continuous performance management software helps you set a regular cadence of communication with your remote employees. Discover 15Five’s Weekly Check-In

3) Coach your remote employees. It can be easy to just assume that a person’s productivity will automatically transfer from the office to the home or café. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. To make sure people can execute well on their own, show them how to do it. Train them when it comes to communicating regularly to manage expectations, developing routines that support their work/life balance, and even setting up customized at-home work stations that best suit their styles. Just as important as coaching remote workers is coaching the managers who oversee them. Leadership roles can be challenging enough, and this only increases when your people aren’t sitting within earshot.

Remote work culture

Okay, remote employees can still be productive, but building a work culture under these conditions is impossible.

Not so fast. The larger and more spread out your business becomes geographically, the harder it is to maintain a strong, cohesive, and pervasive culture. But, at the end of the day culture isn’t a place. It’s a mindset.

The company mission, vision, and values, and expectations for positive working relationships aren’t spatially-bound. Yes, the kind of face time that’s always been so critical for building camaraderie and trust may become more limited as remote-employee numbers grow. That doesn’t mean the cultural values you’ve spent so much time instilling all of a sudden go out the window.

Based on Softchoice’s findings, 83% of office workers use technology to collaborate with others outside their office, and 24% often or always have at least one remote participant in every meeting. This same, now-ubiquitous technology was itself once a source of anxiety. Depersonalization, destruction of personal time, the elimination of jobs . . . all fears surrounding recent modernization that proved to be largely unfounded. Companies have adapted to such conveniences, both functionally and culturally.

Remote work is merely another facet of a rapidly-evolving business world. Like any other facet, if you want it to work, you need to work at it. Many managers, supervisors, and executives we’ve spoken with who have embraced this remote work challenge would agree. Nearly 1 in 4 say that employee quality of life has improved, while 1 in 5 have seen progress in productivity. Ironically, 3 in 5 also indicated communication with remote employees was as good or better than with those in-house.

Bottom line, long-distance relationships can be fruitful, they just require a little more effort and TLC along the way. Here are three important considerations when it comes to building, maintaining, and cultivating culture in a remote-work environment:

1) Leverage local offices as much as possible. Unless your business is conducted exclusively over the cloud, odds are you have at least one communal workspace. (We now have three; Raleigh, Manhattan, and San Francisco.) A few mandatory office days at one of these spaces when onboarding employees goes a long way to making a new remote worker feel like part of the team. If you have many offices, make each one a place people want to use even if they’re fully remote. This can be accomplished through creative workspaces, playing music, weekly happy hours, lunch workouts, or other on-brand offers. Mostly though, people will want to come in if you hire enthusiastic people, create a high energy workplace, and foster transparency so that people genuinely trust each other.

2) Make face time a priority. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, there’s no replacement for face time. Organizing company-wide or department specific retreats, off-sites, training seminars, etc. all generate social and emotional returns for your culture that can’t be measured in dollars. Keep the spirit of these events alive throughout the year by developing regular rituals that bring people from different locations together face-to-face, such as our infamous Question Friday. The content and frequency of these rituals should reflect your own values and culture.

3) Reinforce culture through ongoing connections. In-person meetings and events are important, but they’re not always convenient, nor are they always necessary day to day. To avoid the potential sense of fomo (fear of missing out) among remote employees, there are other ways to make them feel like they’re included and have a voice. There are software solutions that keep everyone updated on relevant departmental and company news, and that allow the team to celebrate individual milestones and big wins. Assigning mentors who aren’t direct managers is another powerful means of employee growth and development through continuous, reliable connections with other trusted members of the team.

Pro tip for potential remote employers

As we’ve established, remote work is not the death knell for either employee productivity or  organizational culture. When done well, you can attract and retain high-powered talent, foster positive morale through flexibility and trust, save everyone money, and even optimize employee performance.

But, if you’re going to offer remote work options, be clear on expectations. Of those who participated in Softchoice’s survey, 73% of workers “allowed to work from home on occasion” were still expected to be in the office. Unwritten rules or uncertainty about leadership’s intent undermines the spirit of the benefit.

If you hire people you trust, then trust the people you hire. If someone gives you a reason to do otherwise, odds are it’s really not a matter of whether that person’s working down the hall or down the street. As long as remote work is a realistic option for your business and you put the right guardrails in place, you may just find the results are anything but a step backward.

David Hassell is the cofounder and CEO of 15Five, lightweight performance management software that includes continuous feedback, objective (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. David is a speaker and prolific writer and was named “The Most Connected Man You Don’t Know in Silicon Valley” by Forbes Magazine.