Remote Working and Employee (dis)Engagement?

Remote_Working_“WFH!” came the terse reply from an engineer I had asked for a time to meet up and go over a rather tricky problem. The engineer in question worked for a large telecom company and I was then working for an IT services firm where “working from home” was severely frowned upon. Today that large telecom company is defunct and the IT services firm is a giant in its space. The flexibility of working from anywhere is pretty high on employee’s opinion of perks that a company can give to engage with them better. But increasingly companies seem to be turning ‘off’ that option – what gives?

With a quick hat tip to the near mandatory mention of Merissa Meyer’s decision to drastically curb working from home privileges of employees at Yahoo!, with a nod to the decision of Best Buy to follow suit I point towards Unilever which has over 58% of its 171,000 workforce working from ‘where they want, when they want.’ and companies like Automattic Inc (of WordPress fame) and Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals) that have a heavily (near 100%) distributed workforce. In fact the founders of Basecamp wrote a book ‘REMOTE: office not required’.

Research is increasingly pointing towards two key aspects of remote working that drive (or dampen) employee engagement. (a) The kind of work that the employee is doing (b) The time duration for which the employee has been working remotely away from her team members. Gallup research, in its State of the American Workplace report finds that among employees who never work remotely only 28% are engaged whereas that number shoots to 35% among people who spend 20% of their time remotely. But the trend is one of diminishing returns with the percentage of engaged employees falling to 29% for the set that works more than 50% of their time remotely.

Let’s break that down by taking a closer look at the most commonly mentioned pros and cons of remote working.

Positives:

  1. A high degree of flexibility: working from home (or close to home) allows the employee to plan in personal activities into what would otherwise be ‘office hours’. Taking a sick child or parent to the doctor, getting some repair work done, or dealing with some government agency tend to be most common activities employees do in ‘working hours’ when they are not at office.
  2. Better use of time (and less cost): when your travel is a few feet from the bedroom to the living room, savings in the time wasted in traffic jams and fuel cost savings are immediate and easily quantifiable.
  3. Fewer interruptions from co-workers: Employees who support working remotely point to the fact that it is easier for a co-worker to amble over to ones desk and interrupt than it is to interrupt on chat/email/phone. This, the supporters say, lets them work more efficiently and also plan their tasks better.

Negatives:

  1. Lack of work/life balance: One of the usual complaints from employees is that when they spend too much time working remotely, or are working remotely just because they don’t feel like driving to the office, the virtual wall between work and personal life breaks down quickly. Eventually there is a visible drain on productivity as family members/friends get used to seeing one around the whole day and personal tasks (like dusting, grocery shopping) start finding their way into working hours.
  2. Lack of face-to-face interactions (and aha! Moments): This is the most common argument against working remotely (and indeed the one that Merissa Meyers used). Many managers feel that creativity and camaraderie get affected when team members work remotely and hardly see each other. Vint Cerf (regarded as one of the fathers of the internet), now Google’s Vice President and chief Internet evangelist says “We had people participating in teams, [and] they would almost never see each other face to face. Often they were in different time zones, which meant they had to work harder to stay in sync…So we started recompiling groups to make them, if not co-located, at least within one or two time zones of one another so that it was more convenient to interact.”(Quote from reference a)
  3. Heavy dependency on technology: The tools that let teams collaborate remotely also seem to create a lock-in in terms of the investment and the privacy needed to function effectively. Try having a Skype conversation with your manager with your kids watching TV in the room and the slow ‘faux’ broadband connection that your service provider has given you.

So should we start writing eulogies about remote working?

Not yet. All the literature and anecdotes about remote working and its advantages and pitfalls bring us back to the two factors that seem to govern the utility (and efficacy) of working remotely.

Company Culture plays an important role: Distributed teams are effective only when the tasks each person needs to do has been planned well and communicated clearly. If the managers can assign tasks/goals effectively and get out the way then this format can definitely succeed (Automattic believes very strongly in this approach). Understandably the distributed approach will fail in companies where planning is poor and/or there is a centralized and bureaucratic approach to decision making.

It should be the employee’s decision: The first fact that a company should recognize when trying to engage with employees is to recognize that each one of them is unique! Some people prefer to have a physical separation between their home and workplace. Others like to come in a few days to connect and then work alone to meet deadlines. And still others are most efficient when they work alone only. This will then boil down to the kind of work she is doing, her discipline to separate work and personal tasks, self motivation and the time/cost benefits of working from home. The choice should be up to the employee and the sheer flexibility it offers in times of illness or other important work is a strong motivator for employees.

Vint Cerf sums it up best, “There’s a limit to the utility of remote work … You’re seeing a positive response up to a point because people see that flexibility as a benefit, and then beyond that, you start to have less utility. So it’s not a black-and-white situation.(Quote from reference a)

References and Acknowledgements:

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

(a) Can People Collaborate Effectively While Working Remotely?, Gallup Business Journal, (b) Telecommuting Likely to Grow, Despite High-Profile Defections, SHRM, (c) How WordPress Thrives with a 100% Remote Workforce, HBR Blog Network, (d) Remote Working: Who’s Right?, Forbes.