For many of us, the typical weekday morning can be a stressful affair. We wake up bleary-eyed, wolf down some breakfast, then battle through rush-hour traffic to reach a rather stuffy building – the office, where the work gets done.
Until recently, this was a necessity. Whether we liked it or not, the office housed all the stuff we needed to do our jobs – desktop computers, filing cabinets, printers, our colleagues. And because it was impossible to work elsewhere, we rarely questioned it.
But these days, our ability to get work done is no longer restricted to one building. All most of us now need to do our work is a laptop, smartphone and a decent broadband connection, giving us the freedom to work wherever we want – from home, our favourite café, or even while travelling.
Despite this, people are still having to make that trek to the office five days a week – 35% of UK employees are still not allowed to work remotely, according to a Totaljobs survey.
As is so often the case, our attitudes to work lag behind the technology available to us, as organisations stubbornly cling to old ways of working, often at the expense of employee morale.
In many organisations, remote working is still seen as a perk – something that can be granted to office-going employees in special circumstances. But this attitude is at odds with what employees now want – according to Totaljobs, one in four workers would move jobs if they weren’t allowed to work from home, illustrating that remote working is no longer seen as a perk, but an expectation.
Organisations need to start preparing for a world where remote working is the norm – and we’re not talking about some far-off future either. A recent OddsMonkey report predicted that half of the UK workforce could be working remotely by 2020.
So what’s stopping organisations from accepting the inevitable? Let’s take a look at some of the typical questions and concerns around remote working.
Does working remotely have any tangible benefits?
Remote working can be seen as a win-win. For the employee, there’s the freedom to work wherever they want, with fewer distractions. This new-found freedom is likely to change their perception of work, leading to improved employee engagement and retention rates.
For the employer, it is a chance to cut down on office space and reduce overheads, while gaining access to an ever-expanding talent pool. But the biggest payoff of shifting to a remote model could be that your organisation continues to be relevant and competitive in the future of work – those that fail to adapt will face an existential crisis.
Can we trust remote workers to get stuff done?
Trust is a major factor in remote working, but there’s nothing unique about that – being trustworthy, reliable and professional is the baseline expectation for any employee, regardless of where they work.
After all, we’re talking about adults here, not children. Managers shouldn’t need to keep a constant eye on their team to ensure productivity. If anything, employees may benefit from a more ‘hands-off’ approach that allows them to find solutions to problems in their own way and on their own terms.
This will naturally force organisations to become more focussed on results rather than processes. We already take this approach outside of work when we engage any professional – if your boiler breaks down, your main concern is that the plumber can fix it, not how they fix it.
If anything, remote working could be the answer to our current productivity crisis – a recent study by the Harvard Business Review found remote workers to be 13.5% more productive than their office-based counterparts.
How do you manage remote workers effectively?
With remote workers, the role of managers is less about micromanagement and interference, and more about guidance and feedback – not a bad thing at all.
For this to work, it is critical that managers maintain proper human relationships with their remote staff – and that means seeing and hearing each other, not just communicating via email. Regular video calls will help both parties feel part of a working relationship, and will ensure that everyone is clear about the direction of work. Really, managers should have just as much contact with remote staff as they do with office-based ones.
Ultimately, good management boils down to the same things no matter where your team are located: clear communication around goals and expectations, and regular feedback and mentoring to help improve performance.
But what about the social side of work?
Although much maligned, the traditional office is more than just a place of work; it is also a social environment where colleagues become friends. Small talk, humour and even emotional support are part of the office experience, and all of this combines to create a sense of belonging. The challenge for employers is to recreate the social side of work for remote staff.
We already know that it is possible to feel connected to others without actually seeing them – social media has given us a window into other people’s lives for well over a decade now, helping us to maintain relationships with people we haven’t actually seen in years. The same approach is essential if you are to nurture a sense of belonging among remote workers, to avoid them becoming isolated and insulated from the rest of the organisation.
That’s why People First provides each user with a personal profile – a space where they can add information about themselves and their lives, and view a feed of their recent activities. This goes beyond just names and job titles, allowing colleagues to get a better understanding of the person behind the work.
What about teamwork and collaboration?
When it comes to problem solving and creative thinking, two heads are often better than one. For many of us, group brainstorming sessions or informal chats are how we come up with our best ideas.
Again, the challenge for employers is to facilitate collaborative working among remote teams. This can be done through regular video conference calls, where everyone discusses their work and bounces ideas off each other – similar to a daily stand-up meeting, only virtual.
It is also important that remote workers can reach out to their team mates if they need advice or inspiration, just like they would do in an office. Whether through a phone call or instant messaging, it is critical that you instil a mind-set where unstructured interactions can still happen, fostering an environment of creativity and innovation.
The best of both worlds
The shift towards remote working won’t necessarily mean the end of the office. Some jobs will always benefit from face-to-face communication, and some people will always prefer to be around their colleagues.
In many cases, a mixture of remote and office-based work can provide the best of both worlds – remote working for times when you need to get your head down and concentrate; office-based working for more communicative, collaborative or client-facing work.
This approach would allow organisations to downsize while still providing a physical base and social hub for their staff. Instead of providing a permanent desk for each employee, the office will be a place where people come and go as they please, with a mixture of communal spaces, meeting rooms and quiet areas to suit different working styles.
One thing is clear: in the future of work, the idea of being tied to an office desk 40 hours a week will no longer be acceptable or reasonable. For many younger workers, this is already the case. Remote working is the future, and organisations must start to adapt now.