Does remote working work?

work from home

By now, you’ve heard everything about remote working:

Who is right? Does telecommuting work? Are people more productive? I decided to take an in-depth look at how our workplace is changing and what works.

Quick disclaimer: I’m not going to discuss employees who need to be in a specific geographic location at a certain time. For example: bank tellers, retailer cashiers, police, doctors, etc. They are not relevant to this discussion.

I also work for an advertising agency — traditionally, advertising agencies are a very flexible work environment. We do not have a work from home option, but do have a flexible work environment. For example, if you need to be at home to let a repair person in, our policy is to use your best judgement and take care of what you need to. As long as the work is done and you are accessible, no one is going to be questioned. We are expected to be in the office every day. Some employees work 8:30 – 5:30 (our official hours), some 9:30 – 6:30. I typically work from 7:00 (when my wife gets up for her job) from home, head into the office around 9:30 and leave around 5:30 or 6:00. I work from home at night, if needed. I only say this for a good sense of context.

What areas of work seem to work remotely?
It appears that jobs that can be quantified and measured can be successful in work-from-home situations. For example, a customer service representative taking phone calls from home can directly be compared to a representative working from an office. You can measure customer satisfaction (post-call reviews), number of phone calls taken, average call time, etc. The same can be true for roles like recruiters, task-oriented employees and other jobs that are very well-defined and measured.

Let’s look at the Best Buy scenario, specifically. In 2006, Best Buy switched to what is called a “results-only work environment” (ROWE).

At most companies, going AWOL during daylight hours would be grounds for a pink slip. Not at Best Buy. The nation’s leading electronics retailer has embarked on a radical–if risky–experiment to transform a culture once known for killer hours and herd-riding bosses. The endeavor, called ROWE, for “results-only work environment,” seeks to demolish decades-old business dogma that equates physical presence with productivity. The goal at Best Buy is to judge performance on output instead of hours.

Hence workers pulling into the company’s amenity-packed headquarters at 2 p.m. aren’t considered late. Nor are those pulling out at 2 p.m. seen as leaving early. There are no schedules. No mandatory meetings. No impression-management hustles. Work is no longer a place where you go, but something you do. It’s O.K. to take conference calls while you hunt, collaborate from your lakeside cabin, or log on after dinner so you can spend the afternoon with your kid.

By the end of 2007, all corporate employees were in the ROWE.

Did it work? Here are some of the findings:

  • Orders processed by people who are not working in the office are up 13% to 18% over those who are.
  • Turnover among men dropped from 16.11% to 0.
  • ROWE employees were 35% more productive.
Aetna, the giant insurance company also has a huge remote workforce.

Of health insurer Aetna’s 35,000 employees, 14,500 do not have a desk at Aetna, a move that the company’s top executives, CEO Mark Bertolini and national business chief Joseph Zubretsky, have said helps cut costs in real estate.

Another almost 2,000 people work from home a few days a week, putting teleworkers at 47 percent of its total.

  • Company-wide turnover is around 8%. Work from home employees turnover rate is around 2-3%.
  • Aetna saves $78 million a year in office space.
  • One manager said that teleworkers were 10-20% more productive than their in-office counterparts.
This sounds great! Why wouldn’t everyone do this? Let’s first look at areas where remote working simply does not work.

Where does work not work remotely?

Remote working doesn’t work for two main reasons: contribution and control.

Yes, you can contribute from anywhere in the world. It’s possible. It’s also easier when you have fewer products (as the case with 37Signals). It starts to become more difficult when you need contribution on a lot of different projects. When there are a lot of quick objective decisions that need to be made from a lot of different people, remote working would be very difficult.

I’m approaching this through the lens of my job, where I do not believe that we could have a true remote workforce (but still could make changes, more on that later). My role (as well as most advertising and marketing jobs) are tough to measure. Not only is advertising a very organic environment, it is very collaborative. I’ve come up with many ideas to help out the team that I wouldn’t have been able to contribute to if I was not in the office. The same can be true for any one of my colleagues. An idea can build upon another and there is a lot to be said for human interaction, especially in a creative environment.

But, in reality, contribution isn’t the biggest deal breaker.

People like control. We like instant gratification. We love to “buzz” someone over the inter-office phone system (when they are 15 feet away) to get an immediate answer. The easiest (notice I didn’t say best) way to know someone working is to see them working.

Remote working doesn’t work when people are control freaks or have no real control over the company. Control freaks lack trust. I’d venture to say this is the biggest reason remote working is not more widespread. No control over the company is just plain bad management. Combine all of this and there isn’t a whole lot of anyone doing any work. Here’s a little formula that shows what a lot of workplaces are like:

Control Freaks + Lack Of Trust + Bad Employees + Bad Management = No Productivity

Change anything on the left-side of the equation and you can increase productivity. Notice what’s missing? Location. If you can’t fix the other variables location doesn’t matter. Yahoo and Best Buy are in well-documented reorganizations, where control is the name of the game.

The “D” Word

Here is the dirty word that leads people to want to work remotely: distraction. Distractions are everywhere in today’s work environment. Conference calls, meetings, out of office notices, vendor visits, the list goes on and on. None of these distractions are evil on their own, but combined they form the ultimate work killer.

I joke that as soon as I put in my headphones at work, it’s the signal to come and talk to my office. One day last week it took 24 seconds for my first interruption and I had 9 more (phone calls and people coming into my office) in two hours. Once again, nothing terrible with helping people out – but when should I get my work done? Obviously, part of my job is helping out others, but I also need uninterrupted time to check things off my to-do list. At the agency, we honestly tried “No Meetings Friday.” We tried really hard. I think we had one and someone cheated with a meeting.

Ask people when they are the most productive and almost everyone will say, “First thing in the morning” or “Late at night.” Why? “No distractions.” Funny how 9-5 isn’t all that productive.

So, what?

I, honestly, think that remote working can work. It doesn’t work for all jobs and it never will. People will still report to offices. However, we can all learn from the remote working debate:

  • Employees need time (and permission) to work distraction-free. This could be at home one afternoon, at a coffee shop in the morning or a  “No Meetings Friday.”
  • Managers need to do more leading and less managing. Managing evoke the image of herding cats. Leading is the image of Moses.
  • We need to hire employees we can trust. If we can’t trust employees with time, why trust them with a job?
  • If remote working is going to be a part of your company, it needs to be embraced from the top down.
  • Long-term change is cultures take a long time (duh), but they will result in the biggest gains.

What do you think? What have you learned from this remote working debate?

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