The changing workscape: Virtual-friendly companies

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You get what you pay for, not what you wait for…

I have belabored the whole Yahoo! putting a stop to telecommuting story and the backlash surrounding it. What’s done is done.

What is more important, which is something I have been meaning to write about, is the companies that have embraced virtual work –either  in part or in some cases, the company is 100 percent remote (such as Automattic, the maker of the well-loved, much-used WordPress platform). This has been on my to-do list, but I happened upon an article from Forbes that highlights the top-100 companies for offering work-from-home options, according to the FlexJobs website. As the article points out, if not going for jobs that are obviously remote (such as work with the aforementioned Automattic or Mozilla, which are reputable companies with very visible virtual-work profiles), it can be challenging to identify companies and jobs that support remote-work possibilities – and jobs that are not just some kind of work-at-home scam to lure unsuspecting, naive dupes down a blind alley.

Of course there are a lot of companies that offer flexible work schedules and remote options without publicizing it – it is more a matter of building a relationship with people inside the company and demonstrating that location has very little to do with the work. Likewise, there is a growing number of sites and services that cater to a freelance workforce, allowing flexibility to both freelancers and companies and individuals who are seeking more project-based help. The best-known among these, oDesk and Elance, recently merged.

But where are the companies that are, if not “loud and proud” about being virtual-work friendly, supportive of the future of and possibilities enabled by a virtual, distributed workforce?

One that I stumbled on in my search is actually quite vocal about its support for taking advantage of the benefits of a distributed workforce. It’s called Lullabot. The Lullabot team is one-hundred-percent remote, and as its own content (an article from the company CEO) states,My feeling is that most conventional co-located companies simply don’t know how to manage, and more importantly, how to include their remote workforce.” These are exactly the kinds of objections I hear again and again – and tend to think it is more a stubbornness and resistance to change the way work is done than any real hindrance to working remotely. It’s like everything else – people don’t like change, and anything new is disruptive. With a company that has been distributed from day one, this change never has to happen.

I should also clarify, as Lullabot has done, that there should be a distinction between “remote” work and “distributed” work – a fully distributed company has no central location (necessarily) from which to be remote. The whole company is distributed.

Further to this distinction, I came across another company, Fuentek, which is, as an NPR article described, not a virtual workforce but an entirely virtual company – which changes the whole mindset. A company founded on the flexibility enabled by a distributed workforce is entirely different from a traditional company trying to implement flexible policies.

That said, some quite traditional employers are moving in the right direction.

Aetna, a massive health-insurance company operating a relatively staid, conservative industry, has embraced the efficiencies of telecommuting. Aetna’s reasoning is pragmatic – they managed to cut real estate and associated costs by about 78 million USD.

A really surprising leader in virtual work growth is the US federal government. (This will not come as any surprise to most, especially if you’ve ever worked for the government.) While it is not true across the board, some government agencies have been more eager to take on telecommuting in a serious way. The groundwork has already been put down to introduce telework across government agencies, but so far the one federal trailblazer has been the US Patent and Trademark Office, which has a dedicated telework coordinator and almost 70 percent of its workforce working remotely at least part time.

Ultimately these moves should not come as any surprise. The evidence shows that virtual work is a win-win. Employers can, like Aetna, attract and retain premium talent while reducing their costs. Employees are more likely to stay, feel trusted and feel a sense of loyalty to the company. Most companies have the technology for enabling virtual offices but the attitudes and institutional support lags behind.

The search for compassion and attributes found in those younger/finding however unaccountable harrowing hate/craving reaction, a hideous terminal hunger/starving for life in a world with so much on its plate” The Chills – “Singing in My Sleep”

The Changing Workscape: The Upsides of Remote Work

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When asked whether the company has meetings, he replied: “Has anyone ever said ‘I wish I could go to more meetings today’?” – President of Automattic and co-founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg

While for me, there are no downsides to remote work, I can understand employers’ resistance and arguments against it. It’s new territory for most of them, so it’s easy to throw out a bunch of ill-considered objections: “if I can’t see or monitor my employees at their desk, I don’t know what they are doing” (which essentially means they do not trust their employees anyway and need to rethink staffing or their tendency to micromanage); “we need to work face-to-face to inspire creativity and innovation” (this may be true some of the time but is no reason to eliminate remote work); “we’re afraid productivity will suffer” (most studies conclude the opposite), etc. It comes down to a need for control.

Discussing the backwardness of the move away from remote work (in reference to Yahoo!’s hotly debated 2013 decision to forbid distance work), Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media, stated in a Forbes article by Jenna Goudreau (“Back to the Stone Age?” – sure feels like it!), “It comes from fear. Fear that if I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re working on. It’s a distrust of your own workforce.”

The trick perhaps is both in making policy and accompanying attitude changes toward distance work – and finding a balanced approach to distance work. As Wharton research shows as part of its Work/Life Integration Project, there is no ideal “one-size-fits-all” way to do distance work. But offering the possibility means that a company has more tools to tackle all the challenges they face in attracting and keeping the right staff for its needs.

Objections be damned. Speaking from firsthand experience, I have benefited from the flexibility, increased productivity and benefits of focus, a better balance with work and home life and a much stronger sense of being trusted and valued in the company I was a part of. Likewise, it was true that I felt healthier, happier and almost felt as though things like vacation or sick leave mattered less; that is, while we do need time off, the ability to stay at home and structure my time and projects my own way (as long as I met deadlines and expectations) made all my time feel like my own. The comfort of staying at home also meant I was better rested, lost the misery of commuting and was just in the perfect spot for personal contentment and professional achievement. (Some arguments employees have against remote work, though, include the opposite – that professional achievement and advancement can be more challenging as a remote worker because you’re kind of “out of sight, out of mind” – you have to make extra effort to be noticed.)

The upsides are myriad for those employers who will embrace and allow distance work, not dissimilar to things I list as benefits in my personal views on distance work and telecommuting.

Increasing productivity & time savings
With more actual time for working (less time commuting or just sitting around talking – or being disrupted/interrupted in the office), productivity increases. A professor of management from UCLA, David Lewin, mentioned in the same Forbes article that a number of studies show that telecommuting correlates with higher productivity levels.

Boosting focus & eliminating interruptions
Improved focus is a key aspect of working at home that ties directly to improved productivity. Working in an office environment inevitably leads to a number of interruptions, and interruptions have a real cost. It takes time to focus, and every interruption disrupts that focus. Among other studies, University of California at Irvine research indicates that it takes up to 23 minutes to regain that same focus level. It only takes three “little interruptions” then to waste more than a hour of each day! It’s possible to make office rules, which we’ve tried at my office, to reduce these kinds of interruptions, but the truth is – in the destructive open landscape office environment that most companies seem to favor these days, no-interruption policies can never really be enforced. With people walking in, out and through all day long, someone saying, “Do you have a minute?” is enough to derail serious, hard-won concentration (I am a writer, and I need this!) But even the people in the big open room talking to each other – not to you – is more than enough to do the damage. All of these factors lead to the sense of not having enough time to do what needs to get done, which creates considerable anxiety and stress.

Building the dream team
A company can pick the cream of the crop if they are flexible enough to choose employment talent from anywhere. Not restricting a search to the local search area or requiring the right team members to uproot and relocate, a team can be comprised of the best in the world, not just the best in the local commuting area.

Retaining the best – creating loyalty – improving satisfaction
Showing employees that they are trusted and valued and giving them the flexibility to do their jobs creates goodwill and a sense of loyalty. A 2011 WorldatWork study found that “Organizations that have a stronger culture of flexibility also have a lower voluntary turnover rate. In addition, a majority of employers report a positive impact on employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement.”

Fostering corporate agility
Real savings can be achieved by reducing onsite workforce – that is, major real estate and other overhead and infrastructural expenses. With these savings, a company can have a lot more agility and freedom to operate more flexibly and manage expenses. By selecting best-in-class staff wherever they happen to be, a company may be able to take advantage of time zone differences (these are not always a drawback). Sometimes with a distributed staff, a company has staff closer to its customers who can handle those relationships more effectively than from a centralized location much further away.

Another aspect of this kind of agility is the ability to streamline activities. In companies that are really meeting-heavy, where people struggle to get their actual work done, because the tendency is to schedule extraneous and sometimes unnecessary meetings, a remote workforce has to adapt. It’s not that they will not continue to have meetings, but the number and scope of meetings can be pared down to what is needed rather than just what is convenient to have.

In my current company, there is not just meeting overkill but there used to be two annual marketing meetings to which all employees traveled. (And there is a lot of absolutely cost-ineffective travel taking place still). Finally the company decided to embrace the concept of a webinar to deliver this twice-yearly information to all the local markets. While the company is still firmly committed to an overabundance of in-person meetings, at least the step toward using technology to make up for cost cutting measures moved us in the right direction.

Work-life balance & health
I don’t have the hard and fast numbers on me, but it makes sense that people who want to work at home achieve a better work-life balance, which contributes to greater job satisfaction and to life satisfaction overall.

Companies should move away from self-destructive, factory models of work where people are rewarded for arriving early and staying late.” – Matt Mullenweg, Automattic/WordPress