At the turn of the decade, you might have imagined we’d all be plugging ourselves into an avatar-based virtual world – controlling a robot version of ourselves around the office. No need to commute, you can work in the comfort of your own home. Maybe not. Although technologies voracious hunger to evolve and grow hasn’t subsided, this might be the hot topic of 2030.
As it stands, remote working has seen a gradual incline, but not at the rate we might have laid a bet on. So as an employer, is it an area worth exploring? Does working from home (WFH) stifle or promote productivity? Could this flexible thesis be the key to securing today’s top talent? Questions, questions, questions. In this article, we take a closer look at the potential pros and pitfalls that have initiated a somewhat cautious introduction to the remote worker.
Let’s start with the driver – innovation. The tech industry’s contributions in cloud computing and video conferencing helped to bridge the gap between working in separate locations. Software products, such as Slack and Zoom, give us seamless communication from the convenience of our chosen destination. But this didn’t happen yesterday. Tech giants have toyed with the power of WFH for decades.
A historical event that threw the WFH debate into the limelight hit the papers in 2013. Yahoo! found themselves making a perfect U-turn on their remote work. After recording anxiety-inducing margins, they decided to poach Google’s Marissa Mayer to pivot a flagging culture. Her masterstroke decreed – there will be no more WFH. At the time, many criticised such a move as backwards for a forward-thinking tech giant. Nonetheless, the company’s productivity and market clout were failing with a sizeable portion of remote workers not pulling their weight.
Another example is IBM, who have reportedly been allowing remote work since 1980. In 2009, the firm announced that 40% of its employees worked remotely – allowing them to sell off 78 million square feet of office space and profit by roughly $2 billion. But eight years later in 2017, the company announced it was pulling thousands of employees back into the office, and scrapping its work from home initiative.
Other companies including Aetna, Reddit and Best Buy, similarly backtracked on this policy. While Google, Facebook and Apple – widely seen as innovators in the workplace – never entertained them to such a scale in the first place. Why? According to IBM’s chief marketing officer Michelle Peluso, it was the belief that teams working together in person are “more powerful, more impactful, more creative”. Companies began to go against WFH with Facebook offering workers a $10,000 bonus if they live near headquarters.
Apple’s Steve Jobs final offering to his legendary company was the new halo shaped campus. His obsessive demand for collaboration was evident in everything about the modern masterpiece. When asked how many restaurants it should have, he replied “One restaurant, a huge one, forcing everyone to get together. You have to be able to bump into each other.”
It’s analogous to the biological concept of white matter and creativity. Unlike grey matter, in which tight-knit networks of neurons fire quickly to solve a problem fast, white matter takes a longer route. With white matter, our neurons take a windy elongated path. By doing this, they are collecting additional information. The extended journey promotes the chance of a bumping into something novel along the way. Perhaps Jobs imagined his employees as ideas, the more they knocked heads with employees from other departments, the more chance of a serendipitous collaboration.
Such a coincidence is now known as the ‘water cooler effect‘. Where people who queue around a water dispenser begin to chat and discuss ideas. But what the tech industry prioritises above anything else – innovative new ideas – isn’t necessarily beneficial to all businesses. It sacrifices along to ensure people bump into each, something that won’t happen while working in your living room.
One thing to consider is that all these companies are similar in size, location, and industry. Since 2013 Marissa Mayer has since publicly stated that scrapping WFH was something unique to Yahoo!. More recent studies suggest that if the cultures right, it can increase productivity.
An experiment at Ctrip – A 16,000 employee, NASDAQ listed Chinese travel agency – is one example. Call centre employees who volunteered to WFH were randomly assigned either to work from home or in the office for nine months. Homeworking led to a 13% performance increase. Broken-down, 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter and more convenient working environment). Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction, and their attrition rate halved. There were a few detriments to WFH. The promotion rate conditional on performance fell. Aside from this, Ctrip saw it a huge success.
They later rolled out the option to WFH to the whole firm. They allowed the experimental employees to reselect between the home and office. Interestingly, over half of them switched, which led to the gains from WFH almost doubling to 22%. So why does this conflict so significantly with our the IBM’s or Yahoo!’s of the world?
Marissa Mayer stated she wanted a culture shift. After over thirty years of remote work, IBM might have needed one too. Evidence from the study deduced a key factor is dependable management. Delta Emerson, Chief of Staff at Ryan, has flipped to flex and comments on the findings of this study.
Regardless of how well-designed a company’s approach to workplace flexibility is, if managers aren’t on board and don’t have the skills and attitudes to manage effectively, it will flounder. It’s as simple as that. This study is proof positive that it is possible to properly equip managers, even those who might be resistant, to succeed in leading a flexible team.
It’s evident “there is a fear of shirking [from home]” says Prithwiraj Choudhury, Lumry Family associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. But do the positives outweigh the pitfalls? From an employer-side, you have the added office/desk space. You can also lower salaries, and your talent pool stretches from a commutable distance to a global one. But the keyword here is commute, cutting this out can make a remarkable difference to your employee’s wellbeing.
Hours of commuting may be mind-numbingly dull, but new research shows that it might also be harming both your health and performance at work. A study of more than 34,000 British employees across all UK industries found. VitalityHealth with the University of Cambridge, RAND Europe and Mercer, found that workers with a commute of less than half an hour gain an extra seven days’ worth of productive time each year. In comparison to those with commutes of 60 minutes or over.
Longer commutes also appear to have a significant impact on mental wellbeing, with those commuting longer 33% more likely to suffer from depression. They are 40% more likely to have financial worries and 12% more likely to report issues due to work-related stress. The same workers were inclined to get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep each night and are 21% more likely to be obese. The results demonstrate just how important a daily work routine is in influencing workers’ health and work performance, according to Shaun Subel, Director of Strategy at VitalityHealth.
Long commutes are also apparent in larger countries like The United States. According to data from the US Census Bureau, Americans average about 25 minutes in their cars travelling both to and from work. Furthermore, over 1 million full-time workers commute at least 90 minutes total or 50 miles each way. Long commutes and rigid hours can even affect areas as critical as parenting.
Research from Harvard Business Review found that 33% of workers believe they couldn’t be the type of parent they wanted to be because of a lack of flexible working; 39% say it’s hard for them to factor in healthy living or exercise within the structure of their workday. And 34% say it’s hard for them to maintain productivity over the working day.
We seem to have come a long way since studying the tech giants. We know that WFH comes with some strings attached. Both for the employer and their workforce – Ying and yang are evident.
One of the biggest obstacles is the transition. Will it work? Which current employees should be allowed it? No one wants to disrupt what’s working and treat staff unfavourably. Yet, we’ve seen Ctrip offer the service after its internal experiment, later recording a productivity increase of 22%. So why not lay the option on the table?
The pharmaceutical industry is arguably as innovative if not more so than the tech business. Jack Kavanagh, a Senior Consultant at AL Solutions – a Biometrics and Clinical recruitment company – states the majority of professionals would “prefer the option.” In the name of flexibility, why not “have 1-2 days per week from home.” He continues “if home-based working is not a possibility for your organisation, there are several alternative ways of offering flexibility to your employees.”
Jack reports his clients have experienced benefits such as a higher volume and quality of candidate responses to adverts.
What’s great is if you’re trying to secure top talent, these terms make it easier for you to negotiate with a desirable candidate.
It seems this is a growing insight. The current LinkedIn Global Talent Trends report revealed that the number of global job posts shared on LinkedIn offering flexible working has increased by 78% over the past three years. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 26 million Americans – 16% of the entire workforce – worked remotely at least sometimes in 2018. The flexibility of working from home is so attractive to 21st-century, workers that 34% of US workers surveyed told Owl Labs they would take a pay cut to work remotely.
After deep-diving into the concept of remote work, we have learnt an exceptional amount. With the right infrastructure, resolute management, and the option for all employees to partake, WFH can be a big bonus! Flexible working should be just that, flexible. Offer a few days away (each week), flexible lunch hours or the chance to promote into another area. WFH could be the perk you need to seal your next A* employee.