In a piece for Bloomberg entitled “The Rise and Fall of Working From Home,” Rebecca Greenfield makes the case that the days of the remote workforce are numbered. Ms. Greenfield cites the example of Richard Laermer, owner of a New York-based public relations firms, who decided to let employees work remotely.

After ten months of telecommuting, however, Mr. Laermer deemed it a failure and required employees to return to the office. Among the reasons for the failure, Mr. Laermer cited employees who were unreachable for hours, wouldn’t communicate with their coworkers or refused to come into the office for meetings.

Ultimately, Mr. Laermer concluded that “the working-from-home thing has to be on a per-person basis, and it can't be very often. It just doesn't work.”

As Ms. Greenfield points out, Mr. Laermer’s experience is by no means unique. In fact, a number of high-profile companies have made news by eliminating or greatly reducing their remote workforce. Marissa Mayer made waves when she implemented a remote worker ban at Yahoo. Even IBM, once a pioneer among companies embracing remote employees, recently made headlines by announcing an end to their long-standing work-from-home program.

While incidents such as these may lead some, such as Ms. Greenfield and Mr. Laermer, to conclude that telecommuting policies ‘just don’t work,’ is that really the case? Are we really looking at the fall of working from home?

 

Benefits of Remote Workers

Mr. Laermer’s experience notwithstanding, study after study has shown that telecommuters are often happier and more productive than their in-office colleagues. In fact, in one study a Chinese travel website, Ctrip, found that employees who worked from home made 13.5 percent more calls per week, or roughly an entire workday’s worth of additional work.

Ctrip’s results are hardly unique. In fact, according to CoSo Cloud, among the 39 percent of those surveyed who worked at least part of the time remotely, some 77 percent reported greater productivity during the time they were off-site, with nearly one-third of those polled accomplishing more in less time. Even more impressive, 23 percent were willing to work longer hours and 52 percent were less likely to take time off from work, even when sick.

For some managers and executives, such a boost in productivity may be hard to believe. After all, mental images of a remote worker watching TV, dealing with kids or dropping work to go play golf may be hard to shake. The reality, however, is that workplace distractions tend to be much more costly. For example, SurePayroll found that 86 percent of workers prefer to work alone for maximum efficiency, while 61 percent cited loud colleagues as their biggest distraction. Further, some 40 percent of employees found that coworkers stopping by their workspace for an impromptu chat was another major source of distraction. Needless to say, all of these are non-issues for a telecommuter.

Beyond greater employee satisfaction and increased productivity, businesses stand to gain in other areas as well. With the rising cost of real estate in many parts of the world, telecommuters offer businesses a chance to significantly reduce the cost of doing businesses. In fact, it’s been reported that businesses save as much as $10,000 of real estate costs per year for each remote employee. For companies that provide travel vouchers or reimbursements, remote employers can save even more money. For example, the Department of Agriculture recently saved $8 million in transportation subsidies thanks to remote employees.

 

How to Get the Most From Remote Workers

While a remote work program is obviously an effective way to improve employee morale, increase productivity and reduce costs, many companies are left wondering how to effectively implement a remote work program and avoid Mr. Laermer’s experience.

 

  • Meet remote workers’ technical needs. For telecommuters to be productive, they need the proper support, whether it be technical support, remote access, proper software, up-to-date hardware or ongoing training. The minute one of these fundamental links breaks, remote workers’ ability to be productive tanks.

  • Build rapport with every member of the team. All too often managers take for granted the extra effort it takes build and maintain a sense of camaraderie and rapport with remote employees when it’s no longer possible to pop in their office or cubicle to visit with them and make sure things are going well. This is one area where the adage “no news is good news” does not apply. Set aside time to call or video conference with each remote employee on a regular basis to make them feel like an integral part of the company.

  • Help remote workers advance their careers. One of the worst things a manager can do is treat telecommuters like second-class citizens within the company. Just because a person works from home doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not interested in advancement or greater responsibility. Make sure, to the extent possible, that remote employees have the same opportunities for promotions and career advancement as in-house employees.

  • Look after their physical well-being. According to one study, 51 percent of at-home workers report having work-related injuries such as neck strain, back pain and repetitive injuries. One of the main causes is a lack of proper work environment at home, with many employees hunched over their computer on a couch, bed or other unsuitable location. Even worse, only 38 percent of those polled received any assistance from their employers in creating a suitable workplace. Combine less-than-ideal working conditions with the fact that many remote employees actually work longer hours at home and it’s a recipe for burnout and employee turnover. To avoid that, companies need to educate their employees on what’s needed to have a suitable workplace at home and provide assistance. For some, that may mean purchasing and providing suitable desks, chairs and other peripherals, while for others it may mean recommendations and reimbursements for those employees who prefer to do it themselves.

 

Looking to the Future

Without a doubt, remote workers often require a different approach than in-house employees. Nonetheless, the benefits are clear and help explain why as many as 60 percent of office-bound employees are expected to be transitioned to remote work by 2022. While some companies have opted to go in the opposite direction, squarely back to the 20th century, the future of the remote workforce has never looked brighter.

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