By T. Patrick Donnelly
IBM, Yahoo, and Best Buy, among others, have felt the sting of criticism in recent years for requiring remote workers to come back to work full-time at company offices. Critics said these past innovators failed their teleworkers, who preferred the autonomy outside the office. Plus, research by organizations ranging from the London Business School to Gallup have suggested that teleworkers are more productive and engaged than their office counterparts.
But executives at Big Blue and other progressive companies counter that these benefits must be balanced with the need to create a company work culture that fosters innovation and collaboration.
Remote work is far from an all-or-nothing proposition. The recent retrenchments may in fact mark the start of the next wave of virtual work. Applying the lessons from their initial efforts, companies are training employees to get the most out of a technology-enabled world which allows team members to contribute from home, from co-work environments in the office as well as from traditional workspaces.
Remote Work Won’t Go Away
The pullbacks by Big Blue and others probably don’t reflect the future. A wide range of studies find remote work is increasing. The Society for Human Resource Management says 60% of employers in 2016 were offered telework options compared to 20% in 1996. The federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics also found the share of people doing some or all of their work from home grew from 19% in 2003 to 22% in 2016. As long as statistics show that workers get more done at home — and appreciate the added flexibility — companies will look for ways to make it work.
Refocus On Results — and Relationships
The key is results. As the critics noted, IBM, Yahoo, and Best Buy all pulled workers back into offices as the companies stayed stuck in prolonged slumps. They weren’t getting the overall returns in company growth and profitability they needed, a function of much more than worker productivity. Their moves suggest that the most viable remote work programs require company cultures focused on a variety of business metrics — and that balance employee choice with overall company strategy.
Crafting a results-oriented workplace depends on establishing clear goals that everyone embraces. A good place to start may be the “Balanced Scorecard” popularized by Harvard Business School professors in the early 1990s. The approach calls for setting
objectives based on a company’s strategy, in collaboration with employees. Work is then tracked using rational, measurable performance indicators that are agreed upon upfront. This allows employees to see how they’re contributing to the big picture.
Not every company is well-suited for this approach. Before launching any virtual work program, a close examination of your company culture and processes is recommended. Draft a change management plan based on a shared vision for strategic results. Bring together departments like human resources and information technology to scrutinize how the processes will work.
Above all, a commitment to connectedness and respect will deliver results in a remote work environment far better than barking orders and monitoring activity. If your managers work with their direct reports to establish clear expectations based on common goals, they will have less need to see them. But how do you get to that level of understanding and agreement?
Step 1: Build Understanding And Trust
First, managers and employees need to get to know each other. Each should grasp the other’s strengths, weaknesses, and work style before they’re opposite each other on a Skype call. In some cases, managers will learn their employees would rather work in the office, because they enjoy the workplace and its social nature. This “getting to you know you” step is especially important with new employees, so they get a sense of the company culture.
It’s also essential that a common language and vision be established before remote work commences. For large projects, start with in-person collaboration and team building, so the full group contributes to and understands the plan for the work to be completed.
After this groundwork is complete, offer employees choices — in how they communicate, where they work, and even when they work. That degree of autonomy breeds employee trust and their performance, in turn, will build management confidence.
Step 2: Communicate – The Inverse Proportion Theory
So what frequency of communication is appropriate once the foundation for remote work is in place, and everyone has agreed on clear goals and performance measures? It’s a case of inverse proportionality. The farther apart employees work, the more they need to communicate. This is especially true if remote workers are relatively distant from the office and won’t be visiting on a regular basis.
Successful work-from-home programs also leverage the variety of communication vehicles available from email to Slack to GoToMeeting, letting teams use the tools that work for them and are most effective. But it’s important to stay disciplined about frequent meetings, because that’s what keeps employees and managers trusting each other.
Step 3: Make The Workplace A “Magnet”, And Design for Collaboration
Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace Report”, based on data from 195,600 U.S. employers, found that while workers enjoy the autonomy of remote work, they also desire to feel part of something larger — something employers obviously want as well.
Productive remote work, somewhat paradoxically, depends on well-designed physical workplaces. The office needs to be a magnet, so virtual workers feel excited about about visiting with its cool and inviting feel. Inside should be a variety of workspaces that match the diversity of your workforce and their work styles.
Consider at least three to five options, blending everything from sheltered rooms and open spaces to stand-up areas and lounges. Employ a mix of quiet zones and active rooms. Vary the lighting and furniture. Every space should be designed so it’s easy for employees to connect their laptops, phones, and other devices. The food, drink, and educational areas should also encourage conversation.
The Delta Sky Lounge is an excellent model for how to serve the needs of a variety of users. With a similar approach, your workplace can transform from the closed offices and cubicles of the past to a vibrant space that promotes collaboration and an egalitarian feel.
Step 4: Be Sympathetic To Those Stuck In The Middle
As noted above, the biggest risk to a successful remote work initiative is related to people, not technology. And middle managers are the linchpin — from collaborating with their direct reports to maintaining communication. Since they may also be the one most skeptical of the advantages of a remote work program, facility management and other workplace design stakeholders will need to engage them carefully.
In many cases, it’s simply because middle managers are not used to remote work since they’ve never had the opportunity to do it. They may suspect they’ll be held responsible if things don’t go well, which contributes to a fear of change.
It’s important that the C-suite invests in middle managers to help them through the process and emphasize how it will benefit them. Training on managing to results rather than effort will be necessary in many cases. Also, it’ll be important for middle managers to understand that it’s relatively easy to adapt quickly to the technology that serves as the foundation for successful remote work.
Remote Work Research With Millennnials
In conjunction with the four steps discussed above, the sidebar below share insights BHDP Architecture gleaned from recent research at the University of Cincinnati.
(Editor’s Note: Read Donnelly’s recent article for FacilityExecutive.com on designing the workplace based on the influx of employees from the millennial generation. His advice? Stop!)
(Virtual) Work In Process
As remote work continues to evolve, examine whether it makes sense for your company to re-evaluate your program annually. There are many pitfalls to sidestep that otherwise will have lasting implications across all areas of your business. And, just as you shouldn’t start a virtual work program hastily, you shouldn’t end one without a close review, either.
Donnelly is an architect, owner, and client leader with BHDP Architecture, headquartered in Cincinnati, OH. Established in 1937, BHDP designs environments that affect the key behaviors necessary to achieve strategic results for clients by thinking creatively, staying curious, fostering collaboration, and delivering excellence. Donnelly can be reached at [email protected].