No, it’s not bad for your bottom line, and your people can be just as productive. Here’s the truth about employees who work from home—and how to seamlessly lead them over Slack.
By Robyn L. Garrett
In the past several months, businesses have rushed to modify their remote work policies to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. It sure looks like we’ll be living and working with this crisis for the foreseeable future, and as such, many companies are considering making those policies permanent.
I’ve managed globally dispersed teams for more than a decade, and I can tell you that in this moment, many managers are experiencing some understandable, if unfounded, anxieties. If you’re one of them, don’t worry—you’re not alone.
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Pre-pandemic, remote work went something like this: You know your people want (and need) it sometimes, so you give lukewarm encouragement that they should work from home “if that’s what you really want.” But neither you nor the employee truly feels comfortable. So maybe they come in anyway. And maybe more people get sick as a result.
And while many workers have rapidly transitioned to remote work out of necessity this year, this trend has been increasing for quite some time.
In 2016, 43 percent of workers did some form of work from home, and 90 percent said they wanted to work from home at least part of the time. In addition, 37 percent said they’d choose working from home over a pay raise and 51 percent said they’d switch jobs for more flextime.
With an estimated 75 million people in the U.S. are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that the days of resisting remote work are behind us—even if our anxieties about managing a remote workforce aren’t yet. So I’m here to help.
Here are five of the most common myths about remote work, and why they shouldn’t keep you from embracing the future.
Myth #1: Your Remote Employees Aren’t Working
In 2015, Stanford researchers examined a 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency and found workers were 13 percent more productive from home than in the office.
There are several different possible explanations. First, it’s often true that employees have a number of “heads down” tasks—those jobs that need to be done in solitude. Working from home, where the employee is free from common office distractions, is a great option for these types of activities. The study also found employees were more comfortable in this environment, taking fewer breaks and sick days.
Many employees also say they’re anxious to prove they’re working so they don’t lose their work-from-home perks. So they may choose to work more hours or ensure they’re more responsive than they may feel they need to be in the office.
Remote workers also are gaining an average of about an hour back in their day because they’re saving on commuting time—not to mention time spent getting ready in the morning, which may not be necessary if you’re going to spend all day coding, making phone calls, and checking spreadsheets.
Myth #2: Teams Can Only Succeed if They’re in the Same Physical Location
While there are certainly some activities that work particularly well in person (like creative brainstorming), being physically together isn’t the only way to win.
As the leader of remote team members, it’s your responsibility to help build cohesion on the team. In fact, a 2015 study shows building trust and cohesion are the two greatest predictors of satisfaction and success.
How do you do that? Obviously, ensuring that your team has the right technology is a good start. Some say that up to 93 percent of communication is nonverbal, so it’s essential to have access to a video conferencing tool like Zoom. Having everyone use the same communication and productivity apps also helps.
But research shows many companies focus too much on technology, and not enough on process. Think of trying to fix an underperforming sports team by buying better equipment—just having the tools isn’t enough. Successful remote work is based on three principles:
- Communication: The ability to exchange information.
- Coordination: The ability to work toward a common goal.
- Culture: Having a shared set of customs that foster trust and engagement.
If you focus on fostering these three things, your teams have an increased chance for remote success.
Myth #3: Some Jobs Just Can’t Be Done from Home
If you’re still thinking some industries just can’t be disrupted, then I encourage you to think again. I’m not saying everything can be done remotely—try telling that to a firefighter or masseuse—but we should always open our minds to new possibilities.
Healthcare, for example, was once an area where we thought this was impossible. But now we’re seeing a rise in telenursing and new electronic healthcare platforms that allow doctors and patients to communicate more easily. Considering an ER visit costs an average of $800 and a telenursing call costs only about $40, we’re looking at millions in potential savings.
The move here is to ensure you and your employees are using remote work in a smart way. Each job has different requirements, so there may be a different balance of independent and collaborative tasks. Emphasize that you want your team to take a thoughtful approach. If you find yourself spending 20 minutes on an email, pick up the phone. Frustrated with your absentee coworker? Schedule a virtual lunch and get to know them better.
And for geographically dispersed teams, find creative ways to get everyone together. That might mean a standing virtual happy hour or even a fun internal challenge. Small gestures, like taking time on a weekly call to share personal updates, can absolutely help.
Myth #4: Working from Home Is Bad for the Bottom Line
Many managers express concerns that working from home is inefficient, and even if employees are achieving the same amount of output, the productivity lost is still catastrophic. Wrong again. In fact, current estimates indicate businesses may be collectively saving $570 billion a day as a direct result of remote work.
It may simply be the case here that the way we judge productivity is different when working from home compared with working in the office.
For example, if you walk by a colleague’s desk at 2 p.m. on a Thursday and they’re not there, you might assume they’re in a meeting. But what do you assume when you see that someone isn’t on Slack at that time? In an all-virtual world, our brains crave the satisfaction of immediate response all day long.
The answer here is simple: be compassionate. When you’re mostly interacting with a colleague’s avatar, it can be easy to think of them as a robot. We need to remember that, even if we’re sitting in front of Zoom all day, we’re still fully formed humans that need breaks to function. If that lowers our productivity savings from $570 billion, it’s probably still a pretty good deal.
Myth #5: Working from Home Isn’t Important to Me, So It Probably Isn’t Important to My Team
I know, I know. You might, for many reasons, simply not be excited about remote work. Maybe you’re a social butterfly who needs more daily interaction. Or maybe an old boss aggressively drilled it into you that working from home isn’t “real” work. Take a deep breath and prepare for this hard truth: it doesn’t matter.
At this point, the research overwhelmingly shows employees want remote and flexible work options. Here are a few more stats:
- The average worker would accept 8 percent less pay for the option to work from home.
- Working from home is the fourth most desired employee benefit, behind only better insurance, more flexible hours, and more vacation time.
- Employees who are allowed to work from anywhere are more loyal, more productive, and cost less.
So if you don’t want to be a company where 54 percent of your employees are looking to leave so they can have more flexible work arrangements, you need to give this some serious consideration.
Instead of resisting change, step back and ask yourself what you can do to help your employees achieve a good balance in challenging times. Do they have the tools they need? Do they feel empowered? Are you creating a positive tone that energizes the team?
It’s up to you to build an environment of collaboration, innovation, and, most of all, trust. After all, if you do force them to come to the office and they end up getting sick, you’ll be the one arranging their last-minute backup coverage. Better to suck it up, show your support, and let them take advantage of one of the only objectively good things to come out of 2020.
Robyn L Garrett is chief customer officer at AIIR Consulting, a leadership development firm that leverages data science, advanced business psychology, and innovative technology to deliver proven results. You can find her on LinkedIn or Instagram at @youcantfightthefuture.