Whether you value facetime at the office or encourage virtual meetings over Slack or Skype, the trend toward working remotely — at least sometimes — is here to stay. According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, the percentage of employees who work from home at least part of the time rose from 39 percent in 2012 to 43 percent in 2016.
Those who work off-site are also spending an increasing amount of time working remotely, and the amount of employees who only work remotely is on the rise as well; according to The Wall Street Journal, which analyzed Gallup’s data, 20 percent of U.S. employees worked entirely remotely in 2016 (up from 15 percent in 2012).
No matter your preference, you should at least understand why the workforce is shifting in this direction, and, most importantly, have a sense what it might mean for your company.
Many employers are embracing this movement; Amazon is creating thousands of work-from-home jobs and Dell announced in 2013 that it wanted to have 50 percent of its workforce be at least partially remote by 2020. IBM, on the other hand, a company that was once known for its encouragement of remote work, has made a noteworthy decision that bringing employees back into the office is the right move in order to boost collaboration and efficiency.
While IBM has contended that having employees work from home doesn’t save money, other employers have come to the opposite conclusion. In fact, TheSquareFoot, a company that helps employers find office space, has calculated that employees who work from home may save their companies up to $14,800 a year. Companies also say having flexibility policies in place helps them to recruit and retain top talent.
Of course, as Christopher Mims writes in the Journal, “nearly every company that employs knowledge workers is still learning which jobs can best be done remotely, as the tools to accomplish remote work become increasingly powerful.” Moreover, “making the transition in a big company isn’t easy, Dell’s [chief human resources officer Steve] Price says. What is absolutely essential is getting everyone the right tools. This can be expensive and time consuming, even for companies whose primary purpose is building those tools.”
Mims points out that Automattic, the company that makes the popular content-management system WordPress, has almost always had almost all of its employees work remotely (currently they have 558 workers spread across more than 50 countries, up from 302 employees 2 ½ years ago.) Even though the company has grown, it’s ditching its 14,250-square-foot office in San Francisco because so few employees occupy the space (which includes largely unused ping-pong and foosball tables).
“With teams that may be spread across a dozen time zones, Automattic relies on Slack for synchronous communication, Zoom for weekly video conferences and its own internal system of threaded conversations for documenting everyone’s work and for major decisions,” Mims says. “When everyone is forced to communicate through these tools, no one is left out, says Mark Armstrong, whose site, Longreads, was acquired by Automattic in 2014. ‘Everyone knows that feeling where you’re the one on the conference call and everyone else is in the room together,” he says.’”
Mims also quotes Automattic’s “happiness engineer” Julia Amasova, who says that having a remote workforce is beneficial because it increases transparency. “Most of the meetings were held behind closed doors at other places I worked at,” she explains. “I didn’t have the same feeling of unity and inclusion.”
Of course, having all employees work from home 100% of the time is not practical for most businesses, and there’s no question that a team can benefit from the kind of collaboration that results from working in the same physical space.
Still, the trend toward more flexibility is persisting — and we know that it’s something women value highly. In fact, for many of the women Fairygodboss speaks to, the ability to sometimes work from home or to have a flexible schedule is a top priority, or sometimes even a necessity (which is why we’ve created a Work-Life Balance Guide that helps women discover which employers are offering part-time jobs, flexible working policies and telecommuting positions).
It seems the answer lies in finding a balance that works best for both your company and employees. That balance will differ depending on your company’s function, size, and current set up, and Gallup’s report — which shows that engagement does increase when employees spend part of their time working remotely and part of their time working alongside their colleagues — reveals that “the optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60% to less than 80% of their workweek — or three to four days — working off-site.”
These findings are quite different from what Gallup discovered in 2012. At that time, they reported that “the optimal engagement boost occurred when employees spent less than 20% of their time working remotely.”
Given this shift, it’s more important than ever to consider whether your company could benefit from encouraging more employees to work remotely more frequently.
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