Since the conception of the World Wide Web and the boom in personal computing, it’s only been a matter of time before complete disruption of the traditional office landscape. The freedom and flexibility offered by the combination of high speed wireless internet and laptop computers has provided companies with the tools to unshackle their employees from their cubicles.
At this very moment, we are bearing witness to an unprecedented peak in the long journey to remote work. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed its adoption into hyper-drive, with many established companies opting for hybrid and nearly-remote structures to adapt to social distancing requirements.
Even before the world was thrown into disarray we were seeing a steadily increasing stream of employees moving out of the office and into cafes, libraries, and home work spaces. Flexible work arrangements went from a rebellious lifestyle choice of a few entrepreneurial outliers to a fully accepted and, in many cases, expected practice across multiple industries. The success of companies like We Work and UpWork is due almost exclusively to this paradigm shift.
As with any disruptive change to the established order, experts and executives are often concerned about the productivity of a distributed workforce – not to mention the economic fallout of an unsuccessful transition. If employees weren’t under the direct supervision of the company, surely there would be a hit to communication and quality of work, right?
Sequestering employees in an office building for 40 hours a week raises its own set of issues – stress, unbalanced lifestyle and burnout to name a few. Forward thinking companies like IBM acknowledged this need for change, conducting experiments in remote work as early as 1979. Although they have recently reverted to a more traditional model, the tech company certainly contributed to the widespread adoption of the remote model in the sector.
Fears of employees “shirking from home” – napping on the couch, watching TV, and getting distracted by their children – are increasingly dispelled by a growing body of evidence reporting increases in productivity and reduced burnout. Employers reap the rewards of these benefits alongside the reduced financial overhead that remote work allows. In a display of government acceptance, the Obama administration even passed legislation in 2010 to ensure that federal employees would have the option of working from home.
Still, the first decade of the 21st century brought relatively little in terms of rigorous, large-scale studies on the benefits remote work can provide for a company. That all changed in 2013.
Stanford Economics Professor Nicholas Bloom endeavoured to find a definitive and empirical answer to the questions surrounding remote work practices. He partnered with the leading Chinese travel agency, Ctrip, and some 250 of their call-center employees, to determine how working from home would affect productivity, quality of work, profit, and impact on individuals and the department. Spanning the course of 9 months, the study found a number of positive results:
- When factoring in employee performance with reduced costs in turnover and office space, Ctrip saved about $2000 per employee.
- Low levels of dropout in employees who decided to engage in remote work and a better work-life balance.
- The average increase in Total Factor Productivity Score was 30%, with nearly half of that increase coming from measurable employee output.
- Employees and Management developed a more complete understanding of how remote work can improve productivity.
The immense scale of this study and the precedent it set has allowed more tentative and conservative business leaders a clearer perspective into the minutiae of remote work benefits and drawbacks.
Concerns still remain over how the speed, context, and camaraderie provided by face-to-face communication can ever be matched in the online world, and rightly so. For businesses that rely more on collaborative activity, the switch to remote work may be more turbulent. However, it’s increasingly apparent that tech companies are stepping in to fill those patches with apps like Slack, Google Docs, and Zoom.
While debate about exactly which contexts and industries this distributed style is appropriate for still rages on, one thing has become crystal clear: The world cannot wait for a consensus.
The predicament we now find ourselves in is pushing businesses around the world to participate in an experiment en masse. The financial, software, and telecom sectors are well positioned to successfully navigate this uncharted territory. Over the past few months Google, Open Text, BMO, and Facebook – among many others – are doubling down on their remote work presence to reduce cost and keep operations running in this time of economic uncertainty. For the rest who find themselves overwhelmed by the prospect, there are resources and supports to help ensure a smooth transition into the new age of distributed organizations.
Welcome to the remote work era.