The changing workscape: Remote work less remote

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I have been writing about remote work possibilities and up- and downsides of virtual workforces for ages. I consider myself a bit of a remote-work activist (at least on my own behalf) and definitely an advocate. Having worked mostly in the tech world – and also owning my own communications shop, which is a 24/7 home office situation – it always seemed reasonable, normal and logical that remote work would become the norm rather than the exception by now.

But it really hasn’t. People cite a lot of arguments against virtual work, and in some jobs and industries it is not necessarily as easy to do as many tech-oriented jobs.

I recently read a blog post on the upsides (and handful of challenges) of remote work from a relatively new employee of the all-remote company 10up. The writer makes great points about flexibility and being able to count all those “working nights” hours as work time, and choosing to work when you are most productive and feeling your best. (He cites time zone differences as the biggest challenge; I agree and would add the “perception problem” to the equation. In an all-remote or tech-friendly company, this might not figure in, but in traditional companies that allow remote work in an ad hoc fashion, there are internal perceptions and personal opinions that come into play. The “remote” workers are actually remote. They are seen as less committed or engaged, not as readily promotable, etc.)

He also makes another extremely valid point that is also an essential policy issue that touches on economic competition and the mobility of workers. In the US in particular (although the US is not alone in its restrictive policies), immigration policies are keeping a lot of highly skilled workers from relocating to accept roles that would contribute to the success and growth of American companies. Remote work is one innovative way for companies to take advantage of a global pool of skills – in and of itself, this is not a surprise or new. But I had never really given this a great deal of thought from a policy-oriented perspective.

As much as we workers might like to migrate, with remote work, not only do we not have to be tied to a desk in one place, we don’t necessarily have to limit our job searches to places we are legally allowed to work. It’s a huge hindrance – both for employers and potential employees – and a bureaucratic nightmare for all involved. Happily, we are moving (slowly) toward a world in which remote work is less remote.

Stat Explosion and Data Overload

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May 18 skewed my blog statistics in a big way. As someone who manages a very niche, limited-reach blog for a corporation in my professional life (obviously not THIS blog), this sudden and brief explosion was an interesting look at what immediately drives traffic (a retweet from a famous person). Or rather what won’t. The corporate blog gets readers, and the number of readers and subscribers grows slowly but steadily. It is such a specialized area that it is not as though it would ever get the kind of readership that even my personal blog gets – and my personal blog is all over the place – personal, lacking in a theme or point and not actively trying to drive anything. It started as a baking/recipe blog when my colleagues (whom I had stuffed to near-death with cookies and cupcakes) demanded recipes. It evolved into a dumping ground for my thoughts and commentary on television, news/current events and all manner of other nonsense. Even if my personal blog had a steadier stream of traffic than my work blog (makes sense because the randomness of my personal blog means that all kinds of Google searches, from Mobutu Sese Seko to white chocolate macadamia cookies, from the benefits of telecommuting, to pictures of brown sugar cupcakes piled high with mounds of maple Swiss meringue buttercream and candied bacon. might lead someone to my blog), I never achieved any great reach.

on the bacon bandwagon

on the bacon bandwagon

Until today, my personal blog’s best stats never reached more than 250 visitors – and that was when I was baking a lot and posting recipes and pictures of cakes. In the absence of that, I maybe get 30 or 40 visitors. I am not that concerned with the statistics on my personal blog – I write it for my own sake and if someone else gets there and likes it, or even doesn’t like it, that’s fine with me.

But this morning, which has felt like a neverending night now that Swedish near-endless light nights are here, I posted an article about how I finally watched the witty and insightful Inside Amy Schumer, despite the misleading, one-dimensional Comedy Central ads for it that had so long turned me off. I posted about the blog via Twitter, which was retweeted from Schumer’s own account, which then led to what is for me an unprecedented avalanche of activity. Suddenly my phone was chiming: ding ding ding ding ding ding because, thanks to Schumer’s devotees (a more pleasant word than “followers”), people were retweeting and favoriting my original tweet. (Yes, I am perfectly aware of how asinine this sounds. A non-Millennial person describing the tweet and retweet process like it’s really serious business just sounds funny – even if it does have its own importance. It’s just not the be-all, end-all.)

But more than that, the link to the blog in which I wrote about changing my mind about Amy Schumer’s show made the blog statistics skyrocket. In a couple of hours, there were well over 1,000 visitors. The downside is that this opens the door to a lot of unprovoked criticism from complete strangers. But then yeah, the world’s full of haters, and that is completely fine. I hate a lot of stuff too. It is also easy to have a knee-jerk reaction (no emphasis on “jerk” or anything) – as I did to the ads, and as the commenter had to my post. But I am sure we are both cool enough people in our real lives.

The only comment on the Amy Schumer blog entry, in fact, was a negative one, basically laying into me for my “judgmental, accusatorial” observations about an ad. But, as I commented back (and I think we’re cool now), most of our judgments and decisions are kind of “split second” in nature – especially to ads. They are meant to appeal to us on some level, get our attention and in 30 seconds to make us want to do something, consume something, watch something or buy something (I won’t even use as strong a word as “persuade” since it’s more like advertisers tease and tempt with an elevator speech – so shouldn’t it be a bit more tempting, somehow?). Of course, I don’t know who the target audience was with the Schumer ads, but it’s not me – and that’s fine. But I still had to see them, and I made a judgment that watching the show might not be the best use of my time. Or that it would be as crass and shallow as the ads made it seem. That is no judgment of the show itself or Amy Schumer. And my writing about it was more like, “Hey, I was completely wrong about this – and the two people who read this blog and generally trust my opinions on these matters should know it. Watch Inside Amy Schumer!”

With a fleeting moment of greater reach, you simultaneously become a lightning strike (gone in a flash) and a lightning rod.

I suppose a celeb retweet or starting/being part of a trending topic is the sort of thing that one has to get to gain some traction. Even if, for example, in this case, it is a bunch of clicks – not “traction”. We all know it but there’s no way to predict whether any social media activity will lead to anything. Visitors to my personal blog are nice – but much like in the corporate blog environment, it’s not like they stuck around and read other things. And for personal writing, it doesn’t matter. I write what I write, I post it online and to a limited extent in social channels, but I am not writing for an audience or to achieve something.

But for the corporate writing, you sort of want to extend the reach – establish yourself as a thought leader – but you cannot do anything to damage your credibility or try to somehow get that reach artificially. It doesn’t work and won’t hold anyone’s interest. For instance I could try to steer the corporate blog in a direction where “celebrity surgeons” (is there such a thing other than the odd Dr Oz and some plastic surgeons who show up on makeover shows??) somehow feel compelled to retweet the content, but while that might extend reach for a day, it is not delivering quality or longevity or even the target audience we’d want to reach.

In a kind of related area…

“Data data data – you cannot make bricks without clay…” –Sherlock Holmes in TV show Elementary

All this discussion of statistics should lead to an action plan on how to take advantage of statistics and visitor data to guide future blog content – “give the readers what they want”. At least this is true for the corporate blog – consumer/user/customer responsiveness and centricity is really the only way to ensure continued growth for something like this.

I have been participating in a Coursera/Wharton School online class about marketing, and this week was all about customer-centricity. Since I work a lot with the ideas underpinning “taming Big Data” to gain customer insights in my freelance work, the whole idea of customer focus as one of the only real ways to differentiate makes a lot of sense – and customer data (overload) is the key to giving users what they want.

Never mind that I am totally distracted listening to the professor, Peter Fader, deliver his lectures, because he sounds too much like Bob Odenkirk – so I am supposed to be looking at a PowerPoint slide describing a couple of case studies of companies that have put customer data to good use, but it’s like I am hearing Saul Goodman explaining customer centricity to me. (And Saul Goodman arguably did put his customers first, sometimes to his own detriment and at his own peril.)

This customer-centric, data-driven approach is finally taking root in all kinds of business segments and industries. As Fader pointed out, direct marketing has always used data to target customers – but now, in the digital age, this data is readily available to almost everyone (I won’t get into the ethics of data collection, privacy, etc. except to say that while it’s great for businesses, it’s creepy for customers – see a recent article about a pregnant woman and Princeton professor who had to go to insane lengths to hide her pregnancy from advertisers, retailers and the Big Data machine.) At first companies like Google and Amazon tapped into user data because it’s in their DNA – I have spent a lot of time looking at how old-style, traditional publishers who lost both revenue and subscribers in the big digital shift are now taking back control their data (they had ceded a lot of it to third parties who started taking an ever-larger share of the pie from them) to target their website visitors, readers, subscribers with content and advertising that is highly personalized. And just today I saw a news report about a museum in London that has begun to use all kinds of data collection (traditional and digital) to continue to attract visitors. As the report stated, “Research is a key part of the museum’s arsenal.”

The application of data and personalization is the next logical step, but I wonder about the quality and longevity of this too. Collecting, analyzing and applying user data can only go so far before people feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulder. I cannot help but wonder if that sense of Big Data infiltrating one’s life will start to feel too much like Big Brother and begin to change and influence consumer behavior?

(As advertised – I rambled aimlessly!)

The changing workscape: Flex-work options – What if we’re just not doing it right?

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Working in an environment that does not invite or encourage an ethos of working where and how one is most productive, it can be difficult to believe that there are companies with flexibility in their DNA. Leaving the flex nature of the small- to medium-size tech enterprises, it did not seem like it would be that vast a cultural chasm to cross because we’re all working in this fast-paced, tech-driven world, aren’t we?

Truth is – no, we aren’t. Tech companies live and die by the technology. A conservative, traditional company operating in selling commodities does not believe it needs to be on the fast-track to digital change (either in how it does business/sells or in how it works internally). For all the grandiose, pie-in-the-sky talk about embracing technology, change and finding new ways of working, leaving that comfortable zone where one has “always had success” doing business is still how things are plugging along. Fundamentally, there is a disparity between the talk of change and innovation and the walk of eschewing change, putting up obstacles and viewing flexibility with suspicion.

It comes down to communication, on some level – first, a company (whatever its size, business or take on flex work) needs to go beyond lip services regardless of what they want. If they want employees to innovate and work where they feel best or chained to their desks 8 to 5, they need to make that clear in an honest and clear way. And employees need to make their needs known as well. Many companies have flex-work policies on the books, but people are afraid to take advantage, fearing being perceived as “not dedicated to their work”.

But, as a Virgin/YouGov survey predicts, we may be moving close to the almost office-free world in the next 20 years. It would be better and easier to start confronting the challenges and barriers now. Starting with the aforementioned and all-important practice of communication. Can we not shake off the stigma of flexible work and be clear about what “flexible work” means and what employers and employees expect of it?

The partial answer, at least for today, is: We’re not there yet. An apt answer for flex and telework (as well as for relationships in the undefined, “budding” stage!).

As with most things, I could ask whether there is actually a right or wrong way to introduce and undertake some of the flexible work options that are out there. Are we doing it right? No, probably not yet. As stated, we’re not there yet in terms of every company jumping on board looking for options – but we are at a stage that most companies have some of their workforce that could be offered flexible options – and the benefits go both ways.

“Flexible work” could mean a host of different things. Telecommuting, near and dear to my heart, alone has tremendous potential for changing the workscape as we know it today. A couple of ZDNet articles grabbed my attention for their focus on bigger societal benefits (not emphasizing the benefits to the individual or even the economic benefits to the companies taking advantage of remote or virtual work). One article made the point: Working at home is going green. The commute is reduced/eliminated – the environmental impact of that could be huge. Right now there are well over 200 million Americans making a daily commute. The second article discussed how policy-level decisions to support telecommuting would incentivize business growth. In this era of lost jobs and economic uncertainty, it does seem like policy change (especially with regard to making taxation more transparent and easy to handle for small home-based businesses, as an example – or making clear deductions possible for those who work from home offices and forgo the commute) would go a long way toward changing the dialogue and figuring out how to get flexwork going  — the right way and for real.

The changing workscape: Why is virtual work stigmatized while internet dating no longer is?

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Does “flexibility stigma” exist?

Apparently so; it exists when it comes to work.

A similar kind of stigma used to exist when it came to online/internet dating. A CNN article highlights the fact that fewer than one percent of Americans were using the internet to meet dates in 1992 – and by 2009, almost a quarter of couples were meeting online. The Guardian reports, based on a University of Rochester study, that online dating is the second most common way Americans start relationships today.

My guess is the numbers may even be higher than what the CNN article reports; the stigma is virtually gone, but I think people probably still underreport their online-love exploration.

Online dating became broadly experimental, then accepted, and then mainstream. People (almost) proudly talk about how they met on OkCupid or Match.com or whatever the flavor-of-the-month or niche dating site is. The process has moved a lot like the bell curve of technology adoption. Online dating started with innovators and early adopters – I imagine that those who adopted early were tech-oriented people but also possibly the kind of people who would benefit from the barriers and anonymity of online interaction. (Hey, not taking any shots – I am a wee bit techie, a wee bit nerdy and a wee bit shy myself.)  Eventually a wider audience could see the benefits of doing a bit of pre-date vetting, getting to know people a bit better before meeting and being exposed to a broader array of people than one could meet in everyday life – particularly if they are busy people tired of trying to make some kind of connection with drunk people in bars. (Of course that assumes that the other people engaged in online dating are like-minded souls. That’s where the diffusion of innovation curve, in this case, does not work too well, especially in the early stages, in the early adopters’ favor.)

Okay, so online dating is not a panacea that answers all dating ills, and in fact there are some psychologists who claim that there are pitfalls (the aforementioned CNN article makes that clear, citing that online daters may be susceptible to warped outlooks and expectations, relying too much on vague profiles and contributing to a sense that one can be too picky or judgmental.

The Guardian article cited above also explores the idea that people online are looking for different things – and perhaps deceiving each other about it. There are some other great looks at how online dating is unsatisfying and can never really give people an accurate idea of whether they will really click with someone or not. Too true:

“…online dating sites assume that people are easy to describe on searchable attributes.  They think that we’re like digital cameras, that you can describe somebody by their height and weight and political affiliation and so on. But it turns out people are much more like wine.  That when you taste the wine, you could describe it, but it’s not a very useful description.  But you know if you like it or don’t.  And it’s the complexity and the completeness of the experience that tells you if you like a person or not.  And this breaking into attributes turns out not to be very informative.”

Personally, I would also argue about the creation of the illusion of endless choice – related to the point about pickiness and judgment made in the CNN article. People also don’t always know what they want – or need. But that is totally beside the point here. It’s a complex thing, like relationships themselves.

The question is – how has online dating become accepted, acceptable and the de facto thing to do while something totally above-board like online, virtual work isn’t? It’s not like for like and may not be comparable, but I suppose the difference is the line between what is personal and what is professional – and in the professional realm, more is at stake. On the other hand, do people pay a certain price for taking steps (personal or professional) that fall under one of these “stigma umbrellas”? That is, is the online dater somehow limiting herself to just that pool of people willing to be online and to those who can craft a profile that speaks to what she (thinks she) is looking for? Is the person who takes advantage of “workplace flexibility” also being stigmatized at work – not advancing in her career, perhaps – because she has asked or opted for a more flexible arrangement?

The worker seeking flexibility in her own life may in fact be seen by the employer as less flexible and less committed and therefore less “promotable”. While it may seem that women would be disproportionately affected, some studies show that men may be most adversely affected by asking for flexibility. Basically there is a lose-lose for both men and women who aim to work flexibly:

“There can be a stigma for remote or blended schedules, however: parents who want to be more available to their kids may opt for this, and that usually means women. These remote employees may not be as available as someone in the office, may appear to be slacking off, and may reduce their opportunities for promotion. Whether or not those things are true does not matter if there is a perception of truth to them.”

This only covers how some employers see flexible workers – it does not cover the whole concept of flexible work. Flexible work itself, regardless of the person doing it, invites all kinds of stigma about the kinds of workers who want to work at home (or without workspace restrictions) and the quality of work and productivity that can come of it:

“The fact working from home is often less pressured is probably why 19% of those asked, felt home workers take advantage of having no boss around and slack off.

Yet, when you look at the 2.8m home-based entrepreneurs who are running businesses from their kitchen tables and turning over an extra 284bn for the UK economy, you start to recognise that home-workers can be just as productive and even more driven.

Lastly, giving employees the option to work from home can make good business sense in other ways too. It can help a business save money because it means it won’t have to fork out for a huge office and there won’t be as much wear and tear on the office utilities.”

I have had the same questions – how is it, if I have successfully operated my own content business from my home for 15 years, that a corporation who chose to hire me as a regular employee would not be able to value the productivity and experience gained in those 15 office-less years? Imagine this: Microsoft in Finland a National Remote Working Day, asking employers to think about the benefits of remote working, including shorter commute times and further reaching environmental benefits. Events like this are unfortunately rare enough that the idea of virtual work may still be holding businesses back.

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: Would you want to work there?

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In a million years I would not consider working somewhere like Yahoo! now. Not that I would have anyway (never mind that they might not be remotely interested in me). After the very public, very controversial take-back of work-at-home privileges leveled by Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, the idea of working somewhere like that feels backwards. For a forward-looking technology company, albeit with its own strong opinions on what will help them to innovate again (but seriously, is Yahoo! ever really going to be considered as within the innovation vanguard again?), taking such a polarizing action (polarizing both internal employees and talent in the ultra-competitive and shorthanded tech sector and the general public – or at least interested parties in the tech industry), while garnering some attention (mostly negative*), does not really strike me as a place any forward-thinking, innovation-minded employee would strive to be. Not just because they might want to work at home – that slap in the face is the tip of the iceberg – but because the one-size-fits-all and iron fist of “this is how it is” approach doesn’t endear anyone to any workplace.

Some companies have quiet policies discouraging remote work, while others don’t make a “policy” but give managers the authority and autonomy to assess the individual situation and employee as to how best to handle remote work. A blanket answer rarely works for anything, so why it would work in a situation where work styles are so clearly different is beyond me. (I am an introvert and it explains a lot about my passion and agitating for remote work options.) It might be too early to render a verdict, but I don’t see anything revolutionary or interesting coming from Yahoo! since Mayer’s decision to forbid virtual work. Not all publicity is good publicity.

In an unrelated matter, I just thought of how the CEO of a company I worked for saying, “Congratulations” to me when he saw a big table of cakes I had made. But should he not have congratulated himself – he’s the one who gets to eat the cookies!?

*For those times when there is nothing to be but negativ(e)…

The Changing Workscape: Working the Flexible Way

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Study after study, survey after survey, all the research shows that professional workers are willing to forgo a lot, particularly in terms of pay/compensation, in exchange for a flexible work situation.

Many companies offer flexible work arrangements – however slowly (and it is slow, almost imperceptible, according to the Families and Work Institute’s (FWI) 2012 National Study of Employers Report, which states that less than three percent of salaried employees work mainly from home while 90 percent of job seekers state that “flexibility” is one of the most important factors in their search), the trend is moving in that direction. This is not true across the board, of course, and probably depends quite a lot on the company, the particular job and all kinds of internal factors. Many companies allow employees to negotiate flexible hours or work-at-home days, particularly once they have worked in a company for long enough to prove their worth and responsibility. I have seen this work in my favour in most of my professional situations, especially working in Scandinavia. FWI data may support the idea that the job market and its employers are not bending over backwards to offer flexible options to employees, but I’d argue that – so far – it is simply not something that has been accepted en masse or as de rigueur. Flexible arrangements are often negotiated today on an individual level – but eventually we will hopefully see companies begin to embrace the demand for flexibility – the talent out there is hungry for it.

A Today.com article cites a 2012 Mom Corps survey that explains that almost half of working adults would choose a lower salary/pay cut in order to gain more flexibility. Just over 50 percent went so far as to state that they would consider starting their own businesses to facilitate the kind of freedom and flexibility they value.

Over on the Officevibe website, there’s an article discussing the top ten reasons why a company’s employee engagement program will fail – high atop the list is the “lack of focus on intrinsic motivation”. This aligns with the idea that employees are motivated from within by factors that are often much more complex – and possibly easier to work with – than money. Virtually every study or article will highlight that monetary compensation is important – but it is not what gets most professional and creative people out of bed in the morning. (Needless to say this article has a lot of good points about what hinders employee engagement.)

The findings are further echoed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and its study in 2012, as reported, for example, in the Financial Times and The American Interest blog: flexible work arrangements were the number one employee priority.

And while it’s clear that employees are asking for flexwork and would benefit from it, there is also a very clear business case for it – employee happiness and satisfaction leading to employee retention, higher productivity and being able to choose and keep the cream of the crop in terms of employee talent. A 2012 Forbes article champions these same employee morale-building-and-boosting principles but points out that allowing for flexibility is not technically a benefit the company offers to employees because it actually costs no money and can end up saving the company money – directly and indirectly.

With surveys, data and studies that go back for years showing both the tangible benefits and the demand for flexwork, I struggle still to understand why adoption has been so slow in the real world.

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

The Changing Workscape: The Future I Thought Would Be Remote

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When I first moved to Iceland at the dawn of the 2000s, the only job I could find was one that did not have an actual office. All the employees worked from home and on occasion, if needed, went to clients’ offices. Even after I briefly moved to Seattle, I continued this work because the time difference actually worked to our advantage (end of European business day meant an easy handover to me on the Pacific coast – and I would have something ready by the next European morning). With all the benefits and convenience technology enabled, this kind of work was easy. I couldn’t be blamed for thinking that this way of working would become commonplace, adopted everywhere, within a decade or so. Sure, some kinds of work are not suited for distance work – but many are obvious fits (like content development, writing, programming, etc.). Even some fields that are less obvious, with some adaptation, can also be good fits for part-time remote work because they force companies and employees to learn flexibility and to work in different ways.

Today I work in the most staid, traditional environment I have ever worked in, and it’s quite suffocating for those reasons. The idea is hammered into our heads – daily – that we need to embrace innovation and new ways of working into every single aspect of our work. A lot of lip service is paid to “changing how we work” but where is the evidence of this?

An article about remote work and corporate staffing cited a Genesis Research Associates study that states 76 percent of respondents to a survey within more than 7,000 companies plan remote hiring as part of their long-term staffing strategies (as opposed to short-term, temporary solutions). If this is so, who are these companies and where is the actual evidence of this?

To me, the obvious move would be to restructure our thinking about being in an office, spending too much time in meetings and not trying to find more streamlined ways to do these things and thus save time. I have looked at my own job and realize that I could do 90 percent of it from home. There are some meetings and some discussions that are valuable to have face to face, but I am finding that the insistence on meeting face to face is more about laziness, i.e. people can just explain in a half-assed way what they want, and I will get it. If I am outside the office, they could do that in a phone call, but the better thing to do – since we always talk about this as well – is to enforce a policy that if you are going to ask for content creation, you need to know in detail what you are asking for… so people need to write a complete brief outlining their requirements. I don’t need to sit in meetings for that (unless I am actually contributing to the development of the brief itself).

My point is – in 15 years, I have basically traveled backwards. I have much less freedom and far more micromanaging/expectation that I be seen at my desk than ever before. In terms of how I envisioned the future of work, this is not it. And I find myself asking every day: WHY?

No article in 2013 dealt with the issue of remote work and working from home without mentioning Yahoo!’s CEO Marissa Mayer and her controversial decision to forbid working at home. Some companies followed suit, others came out explaining why they allow either part- or full-time work (some companies are mostly virtual and always have been).

Mayer justified her decision in a variety of ways, stating, “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

Plenty of tech companies have criticized this all-or-nothing hardline approach. Banning telecommuting entirely seems short-sighted and totally inflexible, particularly to backpedal when it has been something that employees had an option to do in the past. It’s possible that creativity and innovation come from working together, but anyone who ever works in roles that require concentration and focus will probably agree that being able to work from home and tune out all the extraneous noise is priceless.

None of this is to say that enterprising individuals don’t have quite a lot of options available to them – some online platforms have sprung up and are quite successful at bringing together work, demand for talent/labor and technology. Elance and oDesk (which recently merged) are good examples of this – on-demand talent, a marketplace allowing people to bid on jobs and work flexibly. But you’ve got to be on your game and monitoring what’s available all the time, which is fine if you’re relying solely on this. But if you are not actively using Elance all the time, it’s not like you are building up a profile that future employers can look to.

The point of this is just to say – you could always find clients willing to do freelance, distance arrangements because it’s cheaper – no salary or benefits, no equipment, no office space – really nothing except a one-off payment and maybe a bit of their time to educate you about their expectations and deliverables.

Finding a full-time, regular job at a regular company that operates as flexibly is a different matter. But why? What is holding everyone back?

The future of work, which I thought would be remote, is remote – in that it feels like it is never going to happen.