The remote work trend and its importance
Remote work is becoming increasingly common — by Gallup’s estimates, 37% of workers work remotely at least some of the time. Other studies have indicated 70% of global workers work remotely at least once per week.
The popularity makes sense. Childcare costs in the first world are rising by 7-10% per year. And with life expectancy on the rise, many — more than 15 million in the U.S. alone — need additional time to be able to care for those who once cared for them.
Remote work is essentially about flexibility. What you, as an employer, are saying to employees is, “We trust you will get the work done. You can get it done on your time and in a location that makes sense to you, but it needs to get done.”
Offering this type of flexibility in a tight labor market is often the best way to get the people you need. Think about this: If your company is based in San Francisco but the absolute best personalization expert you’ve ever seen is in Denver, Colorado, the first inclination of many companies is to offer him or her relocation to the Bay Area. Awesome. But that expert has a mom who’s sick in Denver and they need to stay there.
Would you pass up this expert simply because they can’t be in San Francisco at 8:45 AM every day, Monday through Friday?
Some companies might, but they’d miss out on a major talent. What if you could make it work remotely? You’d get a major talent, and help them help their mom. Win-win.
These are the reasons you need to care: The work you do is important, but people just like you have lives outside of work, and they need that element of flexibility from their employer in order to manage everything they have going on. Moreover, remote workers are actually more productive in many ways (we’ll get to that later) and the talent pool is increasingly global. So, to get the best, you need to be flexible in terms of how you approach team and organizational design.
What follows in this white paper is a discussion about remote work where you will learn:
- A brief history of work in America
- Misconceptions of remote work
- Why those misconceptions are often wrong
- The benefits to employers
- Finding the right tools and processes for remote work success
- How to get started with remote work
So let’s dive in starting with a quick history lesson.
A brief history of work in America
The state of work pre-Industrial Revolution
It was actually the Industrial Revolution that ushered in the era of offices and headquarters, though it didn’t happen immediately. The hallmark of the Industrial Revolution was large machines automating a lot of artisan and craftwork.
Much of that artisan and craftwork was being done in people’s homes, scattered remotely throughout an area. In the pre-Industrial Revolution period, many traders and artisans made their home function as part residence and part storefront. The introduction of scientific management and its focus on automation ended this idea for almost all workers.
The state of work post-Industrial Revolution and into the early 1900s
Factory work, which essentially cannot be done remotely, was the focus of the U.S. economy for much of the initial period following the Industrial Revolution. In this period — the late 1800s to early 1900s — 10- to 16-hour workdays were common. The goal of factories was productivity, and people needed to be physically present to meet those goals.
Eventually, social reformer Robert Owen — considered a founder of both the utopian socialist and cooperative movements — came along and pushed for an 8-hour workday under the slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”
The first major adoption of that model was the Ford Motor Company in 1914. Ford reduced workers’ days to eight hours and doubled their pay. Critics at the time assumed this would bankrupt the company’s founder, Henry Ford, but his profit margins doubled in two years.
Because the length of workdays was dropping and profits were rising — and because new technologies for more effective work were being invented — economists of the time were bullish on the idea that future generations wouldn’t have to work very much at all, much less remotely. John Maynard Keynes — British economist and mathematician — in 1930 said that by 2030, everyone would work 15-hour weeks.
We haven’t quite arrived at 2030, but that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem likely.
The Post-WWII boom
Post-WWII, different kinds of work emerged in America, often in headquarters or large, sprawling office parks. Growth was everywhere and while salaries were mostly strong for the time, connotations around work (“9-to-5,” “the commute,” “the grind,” cubicles, track lighting) began to seep into pop culture as awful concepts.
Did you know? The man who invented cubicles essentially denounced them on his deathbed.
In 1973, NASA employee Jack Nilles became “the father of telecommuting” by doing most of his work away from government buildings. He proposed the idea to NASA largely as an “alternative to transportation” (read: the commute), which made sense. In the 1970s, highway gridlock was an increasing concern for Americans. Nilles wasn’t the first remote worker by any means, but he’s considered one of the most important remote workers of the post-WWII era.
Today, many companies are encouraging people to work remotely, with Dell being a primary example. More remote workers eventually mean fewer buildings for headquarters and less in overhead costs. Working remotely cuts costs, and companies tend to like that.
Other important factors include the dot-com boom and the 2008 global recession. The dot-com boom, and the war for talent, gave some heft to the idea of “distributed” workforces in modernity, while the recession made companies (and their executives) increasingly cost-averse, looking for different ways to save.
That’s your history lesson. Next, let’s define a few terms to make sure we’re both referencing the same ideas when we talk about flexible, remote, and distributed work.
A quick lesson on the different approaches to flexible work
When it comes to defining the various ways in which today’s teams are working, there are three terms that people tend to use interchangeably. However, they’re actually different. They are:
- Flexible work
- Remote work
- Distributed work
Think of it like this: “Flexible work” is kind of the umbrella concept. If you have “flexible work,” it means your manager and overall organization are okay with you working from various locations, often at different hours, so long as your work is getting done. You see this increasingly with employees taking care of aging parents, grappling with the rising cost of childcare, etc.
“Remote work” is when someone works in a different location than the rest of the team. This can be one day a week — 70% stat above — or full-time.
“Distributed work” is an extension of remote work. It means that a team has multiple members in different locations, i.e. 10 at headquarters and 12 more in various locales around the country or world. (There are also probably a few team members working out of a WeWork somewhere, or a Philz Coffee.)
If that all seems reasonable enough, that’s because it is. But there’s something — somethings, actually — preventing flexible work from being more ubiquitous.
Why isn’t everyone working remotely? What’s holding us back?
In an era where much of the first world has wifi everywhere, and video conferencing is ubiquitous, wouldn’t fully-remote teams make sense? Of course! And some organizations are fully-remote, but not a large amount by any means.
We know that remote work is scaling, but why isn’t it scaling faster? Why isn’t it more commonplace?
Here are some common misconceptions about remote work and, to help you answer any questions they might raise, how to resolve them.
The most common misconceptions about remote work and how to resolve them
Productivity will wane There are managers who believe that remote workers do less or will slack off during the day, preferring to run errands instead of focusing on work.
The resolution: There was a well-cited study from Stanford showing a massive productivity boost in remote workers. Remote workers have more opportunities than in-office workers to get outside, work out, or distract themselves for 15-20 minutes and refocus on a task. And these activities actually boost a human’s productivity.
Remember when open offices were all the rage? They also decrease productivity, perhaps more so than conventional offices.
Did you know? The optimal human work-rest balance is 52 minutes on, 17 minutes off. It’s true. But in offices where being seen as busy can often be a badge of honor and people can approach your desk area at any time with urgent work requests, there often isn’t that ability to “unplug” for even just a few minutes.
People need an office Employees thrive on the idea of an office, co-workers, and small talk interactions.
The resolution: If someone on your team loves coming to the office, let them come to the office. Let them work in whatever way will make them the best, most content employee. If certain people do not like coming to the office, then find ways for them to work in places they’ll be more productive and happy.
In reality, very few companies are 100% remote. There is room for a mix.
Seat time matters In other words, “I need to see my people in front of me in the office to know they are working.”
The resolution: The idea of seat time is Industrial Age thinking. The role informs the necessity of seat time. If you manage bars, your bartenders need to physically be there making drinks. (It would be confusing to walk into a bar and have the bartender on Skype.)
If you run a team of customer success managers, there might be opportunities for them to work remotely so long as they have the tools to do their job from anywhere.
Some roles are physical in nature, but increasingly many are not. For those latter roles, seat time is a relic conceptually.
Remote workers aren’t part of the culture A common belief among executives and managers is that remote workers are less engaged in the broader company culture. The idea of “being engaged with the culture” tends to imply an employee is more aligned with the larger goals of a business and more connected with their team. Managers often fear remote workers or distributed workers because they believe they may disrupt a team or not be aware of its goals.
The resolution: There are elements of truth to this concern, and it is a challenging problem to solve. We’ll lay out some of the possibilities below in this paper. Ultimately it is about finding new ways to connect with your colleagues. See the section below on processes and tools for remote work for specifics.
Employees see fewer advancement opportunities From the employee’s perspective, some believe that if they’re not physically around the top decision-makers all of the time they will miss out on promotion opportunities.
The resolution: Promote on-site and remote employees at the same percentage levels, or bake in a specific ratio of, say, six advancements for on-site to four for remote for every 10 salary increases. Highlight to remote workers how they can stand out to those making career-advancing decisions (emails, one-on-one sessions periodically, being asked to be put on specific projects, lunches/happy hours during the times they are at headquarters, etc.)
Remote work makes communication worse Even when everyone works at headquarters, companies have communication problems. Communication problems are completely common in businesses. So if a team is increasingly remote or distributed, wouldn’t those communication problems compound? That’s often the thinking.
At a Range conference on leading remote and distributed teams, our expert panel agreed, stating the biggest challenge for managers of remote employees was, indeed, communication. For deeply collaborative work, many feel there’s no replacement for in-person time.
The resolution: Yes, communication is a challenging aspect for many managers and teams, but communication is a challenge with or without remote team members. No team has perfected remote work communication yet, but we’ve come a long way.
We suggest some tools below that are certain to help, but above all, apply this rule: If the project is tremendously important to your business, fly in the key people for whatever amount of time is necessary. The ROI on their flights, lodging, and expenses will be there for your company, and the in-person time will be incredibly valuable. For projects of lesser importance, it’s all about a series of small steps to get people aligned and communicating according to preferences.
Remote work prevents “chance encounters” Google designed its latest headquarters to facilitate “chance encounters.” This is an idea from Steve Jobs and Pixar offices, which research has shown can boost performance. It’s harder to have chance encounters when someone is located 1,200 miles away.
The resolution: Foster more personal connections among employees. Instituting check-in rounds during meetings is a great way to accomplish this. How was your weekend? How are you feeling today? What does your workload look like this week? Where can the team help? This is just a brief 5-minute exchange where the whole team takes a moment to breathe before diving into planning and work.
Do you have a team sync at the end of each week? This is a great time to also check out for the week, covering highlights, demonstrating recent product advances, and identifying recent accomplishments related or unrelated to work.
And there are tools to create those chance encounters Jobs designed for, like Donut. It’s been developed to create those “Let’s grab a coffee” moments that strengthen connections between team members over time.
Many of these misconceptions about remote work come down to managerial attitude. Certain managers — and thus, the broader organization comprised of those managers — can embrace the idea of remote work. Some absolutely cannot. If you are making decisions about the composition of your workforce, it’s important to be honest about how you want to work and what compromises you are willing to make.
We’ve looked at history, terminology, and overcoming some of the most common misconceptions of remote work. Before we help you get started with remote work, let’s consider the overarching benefits to employers.
5 benefits of remote work for employers
Despite some of the inherent challenges in leading a remote team, there are unique advantages that cannot be ignored. Here are just a few of the most important benefits of remote work:
Cost savings Dell saved about $12 million in real estate costs by going increasingly remote. That’s not a lot of money if you’re Apple, but to most companies, those savings combined with the operational cost savings are quite significant.
Talent acquisition If you want the best people, you need to remember the best people have lives, needs, families, children, parents, etc. where they live today. Even the most attractive relocation package might not move them. Allowing for remote work is a huge component of modern talent acquisition.
Talent attraction This differs from talent acquisition in terms of employer branding. Talent attraction is more about people knowing your brand and wanting to come work for you.
Increasingly, remote work is an employee benefit we’re seeing millennials and Generation Z demand, and will likely be expected as standard by future generations. Being seen as a flexible employer when a 25-year-old knows they might someday have kids and will be caring for their parents is a huge draw to people beginning to think about their careers.
Workforce diversity Offering remote work options also tends to draw you a more diverse (perspectives, knowledge, and skillsets) workforce. It’s an excellent recruiting strategy. Looking beyond the physical limitations of one community — the city where your company is based — will begin to increase your company’s diversity, and showcasing that different types of work options are available will attract a wide-ranging applicant pool.
Productivity There’s lots of research on how remote workers are actually more productive (we referenced some of this above). When employees work remotely they have the freedom to tend to the errands of their personal lives. Just that 15-20 minutes employees are allowed to take to — when they need to take the time — makes a difference. They return to their home workstation recharged and ready to resume focus.
Now that we’ve covered all of that, let’s shift our focus to the processes you’ll want to put in place to ensure your team’s success and how various workplace productivity tools can help you do it.
5 tips to optimize for remote work success
Rather than thinking about the tools you need for managing remote workers in product terms — i.e., Google Drive, Skype, Zoom, Trello, Asana, InVision, etc. — it’s better to think about them in terms of overarching needs or capabilities. From there, we can map the product to the need. This will allow you to see where potential gaps in collaboration or communication may lie, and allow you to address them in a logical manner.
To help you accomplish this, here are five tips to help you and your team overcome some of the most common challenges of managing a remote or distributed workforce.
Make work accessible and easy to find Remote workers cannot walk over to someone’s desk and ask “Where is this?” or “Can you show me this?” They will either (a) dig through lots of files and folders, which inherently wastes time, or (b) ping someone consistently about where something is, which can also waste time and pulls other employees off-task.
To solve this one, you need a tool that makes documents accessible to everyone. You could have a well-structured Google Drive, for example, create a learning library, or develop an intranet.
Create opportunities for making personal connections If you’re co-located, you might be able to make a bunch of friends at work by talking to them about lunch, bumping into them and discussing a project, or even referencing a Netflix show or sporting event. This is the whole theory behind Google’s headquarters decision that we mentioned earlier.
Remote workers don’t have that opportunity, except for the few times a year when they’re in town for bigger meetings and events. Most companies with more than 10% remote employees will have 3-4 big on-site meetings a year, such as planning sessions, quarterly business reviews, sales kick-offs, etc. These should be a mix of work and social activities, and you’ll need a way to foster personal connections among remote team members, too.
And consider reminding your team members that they have control over their own calendars. Having virtual one-on-one meetings with teammates they don’t often get to collaborate with is an excellent way to discover shared interests and build connections that will most certainly help teammates work better together.
(Don’t forget our earlier suggestion of instituting check-in rounds during meetings.)
Understand individual preferences for communication Not everyone wants to receive information the same way; the best teams know the nuances of each member and regularly apply that knowledge.
You might find that some of your team members prefer requests or questions via email so that they don’t get lost in Slack. Others might have a preference for all communication happening in Slack but will make it clear immediate responses aren’t guaranteed.
Consider having team members proactively share communication preferences — especially with new hires — or include notes about this in your team directory. In this case, your “tool” would be a team directory, which can be something as simple as a Google document, for example.
Hold one meeting per week that includes everyone The “tool” here is likely to be a video conferencing solution. You want to have a minimum of one team meeting per week that involves the entire team. You can do five of these per week, but involving the full team every workday is often a logistical hassle, and information and projects sometimes don’t have major updates day-to-day. In that case, the event can begin to seem like an unnecessary drag for employees.
Pro tip: A great way to build camaraderie and trust amongst teammates is to alternate the time of these meetings. Share the burden and inconvenience to demonstrate every team and team member matters. Instead of always scheduling your meeting during the U.S. workday, alternate and schedule some of your meetings for a time that is most convenient for team members in other countries or other time zones.
- Share daily updates to build alignment and awareness
This is the holy grail of organizations that incorporate remote and on-site workers together effectively. Because of the lack of in-person interactions, it’s important that you find ways for the entire team to give and receive status updates on a daily basis. And equipping them to do so asynchronously can be even more impactful.
Slack and Google Drive can be helpful in getting you started here, but there’s software, such as Range, purpose-built for the job. Making sure these updates are shared regularly will help keep team members on the same page and aware of what’s happening no matter where they’re working from.
If you’re a manager, having access to these updates means having a greater awareness of the priorities of direct reports. With this knowledge, you will be equipped to better distribute team resources and be able to more quickly communicate your team’s progress to peers leading cross-functional teams.
There are big discussions in business right now about “leading with the tech,” i.e., people making decisions solely based on the features or benefits of technology. This can seem like the right approach, but it’s actually a little bit backward.
Rather, you need to understand what issue you need to solve, and then match the right technology to that issue. It’s the same with the integration of remote team members. “We have Slack!” is not the answer, nor is “We’ve organized some of our Google Drive!”
The incorporation of a distributed workforce is a big challenge for companies; it’s less about finding X, Y, and Z tools and more about realizing “Okay, we are trying to communicate better on a daily basis. What combination of tools would help us do that successfully?”
So now, as you look at tools and frame these misconceptions for your decision-makers, using the above research to overcome them, what initial steps can you take to get going with a growing remote workforce?
How to embrace remote work at your company
Getting started with remote work requires a mix of attitude-shifting and tool selection. You need the right technology stack to enable efficient processes and communication between on-premise employees and remote or distributed employees. That’s part of what we do.
The attitude-shifting is the harder aspect, but it can be done.
According to a Jhana survey of 812 managers, managing remote workers was the single management skill in which respondents felt the least confident.
Beginning to bridge that managerial concern and shift attitudes starts with a few approaches, including:
Don’t treat remote and co-located employees the same Make sure you’re giving remote workers as much love as on-site employees and doing it through a different method. This will ensure that team members working away from headquarters genuinely feel like they’re a part of the team. Don’t let people slip off the culture grid.
Appreciate the unique benefits remote workers bring to the table Remote workers often have thicker skin, because they’re not surrounded by people and the energy of an office. (And by “people and energy,” we mean that, but we also mean “politics.”) Remote workers should follow the same process, but being removed from some of the politics can be super beneficial.
For example, we once worked with a company primarily based in Texas. One of their strategy leaders, though, was based in New York. All the Texas employees had a very specific on-site process to follow, elements of which made no sense for the remote employee in New York. He proposed changes to benefit both other remote employees and those changes ended up benefiting the on-site employees as well. He had a different lens and no connection to the politics of who had initially designed the process, so his suggestions improved work for everyone.
Think through logistical and technological issues Managers are really going to struggle to focus on the people management aspects of remote teams if they also need to contend with logistical and technological issues. Many managers and remote workers alike talk about the unexpected nuisance of having to contend with not having remote access to information or databases, or not having enough places to sit when remote employees are in the main office.
Start small Let certain employees, and teams, work remotely one day a week. At Range, Wednesdays are our designated work from home day, but we are quite flexible. And, our remote team member is, of course, remote every day of the week.
See what benefits and challenges occur. Have your team debrief after a month. Iterate on the processes you’ve established and continue improving.
Here’s the bottom line on remote work
The evolution of remote work has been long and consistent dating back to artisan workers many generations ago. This trajectory will continue.
If you live in an urban area, go and count the number of different co-working spaces around you. It’s probably above 10 in a good-sized city. While some of those “WeWorkers” are solo-hustling to build their own business, many are remote employees of bigger organizations. Remote work is here, and it’s growing.
Now do a little thought exercise. Let’s say a top-tier candidate has two job offers. One is for $120,000, and one is for $100,000. Both are pretty nice compensation packages. But when the candidate researches both organizations online and talks to former colleagues, the higher salary offer comes from a seemingly less flexible business. With the larger offer the candidate would make an additional $20,000 but likely be at work more, have less opportunity to tend to important personal errands. With the $100,000 offer, the candidate would make $20,000 less but have a greater degree of flexibility built into their life through the ability to work from home.
Which would many candidates take?
Today, more and more, the answer appears to be the lower offer. In a time where we everyone increasingly talks about “a war for talent,” one strategic advantage can be to design a flexible, remote-friendly work environment that others tell their friends and colleagues about. Many top-tier candidates, especially at a time they’re becoming parents or have other responsibilities outside of work, will take a bit less money for greater flexibility.
Offering remote work can be strategic in terms of both attracting top-tier talent and designing compensation packages.
Getting remote work right is hard. Many organizations have not fully mastered remote or distributed work. But more importantly, many organizations have not successfully made improvements to communication and collaboration processes that remote workers require. It’s less about finding that one tool to rule them all and more about looking at the core issues you want to start solving for the future of your team and company.
Do you need a tool that makes running a daily, asynchronous standup possible? Are your team members craving a weekly meeting where everyone can finally come together? Or is a centralized knowledge base the place you need to start?
Consider what mix of workplace productivity tools will help your team be successful. (Again, tools like Slack and Google are great, but just having them doesn’t ensure your success. There’s much more to consider.)
When you do remote and distributed work right, there are benefits to both the employee (work-life balance, productivity, and health, among others) and the employer (especially around real estate and operational costs and talent acquisition). It makes a ton of sense for employers to consider embracing remote and distributed work at their companies. While some managers will be scared at the lack of control and seat time, the benefits far outweigh the fears of the misconceptions.
As millennials, Gen Z, and future generations become over 50% of the existing workforce, attracting the best people and having the best teams will continually demand a flexible — remote and distributed — approach to work. The best companies will look at the potential challenges, find the right combination of tools to solve those challenges, design new programs and processes, see where the flaws are, iterate, and constantly seek feedback from both on-site and remote employees. Their programs will grow, and so will their organizations.
This guide was hopefully a great first step for helping you think about how your team and company can grow to start meeting the needs of the modern workforce.
Start building for remote work success with Range
Managing a remote team is about keeping alignment, developing healthy communication habits, and fostering the connections that help you and your team work better together. That’s exactly how Range helps teams.
Range equips managers of remote and distributed teams — and the team members themselves — to be successful by:
- Facilitating the coordination and tracking of work
- Keeping everyone on the same page through daily, asynchronous updates
- Making work and artifacts accessible and easy to find through integrations with popular work tools
- Fostering personal connections to build trust
- Strengthening and spreading team culture
At Range, we think a lot about how teams can better collaborate in the workplace, no matter their size or how they’re organized. If you’re interested in learning more about how Range can help you and your team, we’d love to hear from you!
And if you’re ready to start kicking the tires to see what we’re building, go ahead and set up a free workspace to find out.