The trend towards remote working was happening pre-COVD. The pandemic has accelerated it. The only question now is how companies efficiently transition to an environment where workers have greater flexibility. This article examines the benefits of remote work and explores some of the solutions to the challenges.
In its 2020 World Economic Forum ‘The Future of Jobs report’ they forecast 44% of workers will be remote by 2025. Condeco software, in its report ‘The Modern Workplace 19/20’ say 41% of global businesses already offer some form of remote working.
In November 2020 a report from Deutsche Bank argued that remote workers should be taxed 5% of their earnings. This was a tacit acknowledgement of one key remote work benefit, that it’s between £2,000 to £6,000 more financially advantageous for workers.
Advantages of remote working for employees
Most of us lead busy lives. We constantly balance the needs of work with friends, families, community, social groups and hobbies. Often one of them will require our time, for instance, a meeting during the day, picking someone up, an appointment with a vet or doctor. Being in an office from 9-5 can make it difficult to get this balance right. Or, as anyone who’s tried to get a dentist appointment in the evening or at weekends will tell you. Working remotely gives you flexibility. However, it takes time to build this and accept it as part of the WFH routine.
Commute / Safer
When I worked in Soho, London, it would take me from 60-90 minutes to travel in, depending on how the trains were running. On occasions, an ‘incident’ on the train meant I couldn’t get home. It meant I had to share a taxi with 4 other stranded people, costing us over £100. Eliminating the commute is often cited by employees as one of the biggest advantages of remote working.
One thing that may surprise a first-time remote worker is how much time you suddenly have. Bear in mind, my 60-90 minute commute didn’t include getting up / ready plus getting to the train station. If you factor that in I have nearly 3 hours of extra time every day, to do whatever I want. With my extra time, I did something I always wanted – learned to play the guitar. I regularly go cycling in the morning. And I go to early evening gym classes instead of the late-night classes, meaning I get home at a reasonable hour to relax.
Another remote worker benefit is not having to commute is safer. Travelling by car or bike, especially in urban centres, has inherent risks. Slight risks, it’s true, but risks nonetheless. No commute, no risk.
Live in an area with better amenities
Anyone living in London with kids will know the nightmare associated with living in a school’s catchment areas. Houses in areas with outstanding schools can cost over £75,000 more than one in an area with a below-average school.
This doesn’t only apply to schools. Living near your work may also mean compromising on air pollution, outdoor spaces, vibrant communities or access to medical facilities. If you’re not bound to living near your work, you can choose where to live.
A Swiss study (“The effects of acute work stress and appraisal on psychobiological stress responses in a group office environment” OCT 2020) reported there is evidence office workers who regularly get interrupted feel more stress at work. I know from experience that while having ‘an open door policy’ is great for communication, it was stressful if, say, I was trying to finish a report by a deadline. A key benefit of remote work is fewer interruptions and more time to focus.
Travel to other places without vacation
This is one of my personal favourites. My tip is to combine it with Airbnb. Think of a place you’d like to visit, e.g. Paris. Book an Airbnb. Travel. Then in the morning, login to Slack and email, same as you would from home. For lunch go to a cafe. Do a few more hours in the afternoon then early evening, step outside and explore. You’re visiting another country but it’s not officially a vacation.
Throughout life you’ll probably move home. Perhaps because it’s better for your family. Or maybe you fancy a change of scenery. However, most people’s choice of where to live is governed by where they work. Whether you fancy country living or life in an urban centre, remote work means the choice is completely yours. Any city. Any country. Imagine the possibilities.
Less exposure to germs
A lot of employees cited this BEFORE the pandemic. I recall my days working at Sony Music. If someone in the office got a cold you almost knew for certain it was only a matter of time before you got it too. The office was like a giant petri dish. Of course, we’re all experts in virus’s now, so know the inherent risk of working in close proximity in badly ventilated indoor environments.
Easier to communicate with difficult colleagues
In any large group of people, there may be a couple you find difficult to talk to. You might not be able to put your finger on it, but it’s just awkward. Remote working is a great leveller. First, since written communication is the primary form of communication, you avoid personal confrontations. But second, you can keep Zoom calls short and factual if required.
Decorate the office, play your music
At an office I worked at, one of my ‘colleagues’ insisted on playing a radio station I hated. For one, the music was bland. But the inane chatter of the station’s Smashy & Nicey ‘jocks’ drove me up the wall. At another, the piles of papers on every desk made it impossible to put anything down. This is a way of saying, working with colleagues can sometimes be like sharing a house with flatmates. You have to learn to live together and for the most part, people are tidy, considerate and polite. But then, there are those few that aren’t. And if you happen to sit near one of them…… well, I’m sure you know the result.
Choose your own working hours
I’m an afternoon/evening person. Mornings, you can forget. I’m drowsy, lethargic and find it difficult to concentrate. Around mid-day I start typing, then by mid-afternoon I’m in the zone, writing, researching, calling, Zooming. I tend to work until between 6-8pm, before heading to the gym or going out. And as far as I’m concerned weekends are like any other day. If I work on Sunday then I’ll take Monday off. I work the hours that suit me. And in those hours I work hard and get my tasks done. Whoever thought 9am was a good time to start work???
Meet & work with people all around the world
I’ve worked with several remote companies. The Orchard are based in New York. Audiosocket in New Orleans. Valleyarm in Melbourne, Aus. I get to chat with people from different walks of life, hear different perspectives and, occasionally, get to travel to meet them and visit new places. It’s a great remote benefit.
Many remote companies (as opposed to those that merely let their employees work from home one or two days a week) understand the importance of meeting people on your team face-to-face. Github, the largest remote company in the world, will pay up to $150 expenses if a team member wants to travel to meet another. They will pay $300 if it’s to attend a team member’s wedding!
Onboarding less stressful
Starting a new job is nerve-wracking, no matter who you are or how experienced. Meeting new colleagues for the first time, getting to know your way around the office, wondering where the coffee machine is. Many companies ease in new hires for the first week, with intro meetings and sitting down with new colleagues.
For some, however, the experience can be far more stressful. A lot depends on your personality type, whether you’re extrovert or introvert. This is a gross simplification but in general, extroverts like meeting new people, introverts find it hard work. Combined with getting used to a new environment and not knowing where things are can be a high source of stress for many people. For me, one of the benefits of remote work for employers is to alleviate this feeling of anxiety for new people.
In a remote company documenting everything is a priority. Tools like Confluence or Notion make it straight forward to find information on how to do things. In addition, an existing employee can be assigned to assist the new person while they’re onboarding.
Eating at home is better for you
I consider this a benefit of remote work but spoke to a friend about it. She confirmed: “My diet is terrible at work. Every day it’s someone’s birthday, someone is leaving or there is a celebration. Meaning, we have cakes. Lots of cakes”. Do you recognise this diet? For lunch, a sandwich & crisps. A ‘pick me up’ in the afternoon, which is usually chocolate. And lots of coffee. And, perhaps a couple of days a week, drinks after work. Calorie-wise, this all adds up. A large latte from Costa has 274 calories. Two of those a day is 20% of your entire daily calorie intake. Just saying….
Work clothes not required – lower cost
My partner used to work in fashion. She felt under a lot of pressure to wear new clothes on a regular basis. That may be an extreme example but I suspect the same applies to many other people in a variety of offices. Most office dress code is ‘Smart Casual’. But ‘smart clothes’ still tend to cost more than ‘Comfy clothes’. Frankly, I’m happy to never wear a tie again. I feel relaxed in a hoodie and ‘comfy trousers’. It’s far less expensive and means my ‘smart clothes’ last longer too. Winner winner.
Remote work benefits for companies
Hire people from anywhere
It’s quickly dawning on companies that remote working vastly increases the potential pool of talent they can recruit from. Rather than limit their search to within 30 miles of their location, or incur re-location expenses, a company can open up applications to a global marketplace. Who knows if your ideal candidate will live a mile away or on the other side of the world?
Or, perhaps you need native speakers in a certain country? Opening regional offices used to be costly and risky. Now you can have two or three people representing your company in countries you want to operate in.
Employees more productive
Lack of interruptions is one of the main reasons for WFH productivity. However, in studies and surveys employees too say they feel more productive. In one (‘The voice of the crowd’, Phrasia, 4000 responses) respondents said working from home gave them better focus, allowed better use of time and made them feel more productive.
Savings on office costs
The average cost to rent a desk in London is £500 – £1500. That’s for just a desk in a shared office. If a company leases an office then they incur additional costs such as business rates, insurance, security, energy, cleaning etc. The cost per employee could be up to £15,000 per year. At a recent webinar I attended, Cisco said due to moving towards a remote working policy they had halved their office space, saving them over $500m per year.
Attract naturally self-motivated people
Among the characteristics required from a remote worker are reliability, organisation, initiative, written communication and self-starter. People who choose to work remotely are likely to possess these traits, since otherwise they wouldn’t be able to deliver results.
Easier to grow & scale the company
Adding new desks & out-growing an office are expensive overheads for a company quickly expanding. Remote companies can scale far quicker due to the far lower on-boarding costs.
Employees expect remote flexibility
One aspect of COVID was forcing companies to adopt work from home practices during lockdowns. For the first time, many workers got a flavour of remote working. And to no-one’s surprise (at least not those of us who embraced WFH) many of them preferred it! In several published surveys (e.g. this one) employees have indicated they want flexible working to become standard practice.
This throws up a dilemma for companies who want to retain the work from office policy. Workers now have a choice. Go to the office every day? Or, find a competitor who offers flexible working hours, but for the same pay & perks? Furthermore, the company offering flexible working will save costs and be more agile, since they can open new hubs or expand quicker.
I predict, now the WFH genie is out of the bottle, stiff competition amongst companies to recruit the best workers will force many to offer WFH. The smartest ones won’t simply offer it; they will embrace it and recoup the many advantages.
Lower employee turnover
There is a lot of debate in HR and employment services about the drawbacks of remote working. They cite the people who say WFH makes them feel isolated and they miss the sociable aspect of work. I don’t doubt this for a moment. WFH isn’t for everyone. But, for the people who prefer remote working, they will be highly loyal to the company who can balance their preference for life to be balanced with work.
I recently asked a friend how her day at work went? “Not good”, she sighed. “I had non-stop meetings from 9 til 5”.
I interviewed Jim Bishop, a property manager based in Cheshire about the transition of his company meetings from the office to WFH. He said meetings have become far more focused, less aggressive and take less one, surely a benefit of remote work that is welcomed by all!
No relocations expenses
Hiring remote workers means not having to pay relocation expenses for new hires. Simple.
Asynchronous means work continues over 24 hours.
An office with workers distributed around the world doesn’t have a ‘downtime’. The company is constantly working.
Smart use of collaborative software tools could mean an important project is worked on 24 hours a day.
Or, 24-hour customer service could be offered by hiring several workers around the world rather than paying for night-shift work in the same location.
Business continuity in case of local disturbances, e.g. snowfall
Living in the UK means every couple of years the country comes to a standstill due to snowfall. Trains stop. Roads are impassable. People then say they’re working from home before prompt going sledging. With remote working local disturbances, including bad weather, needn’t mean the office comes to a standstill.
Greater flexibility means greater diversity
One of the exciting potential benefits for society of remote working is to expand the number of potential people who can work. Disabled, autistic, introverts, caregivers, parents, retired, foster carers, rural workers, military spouses, hobbyists and more can all become viable members of the workforce. This diversity will lead to greater creativity, more thoughtful campaigns, better products and fresh perspectives.
Advantages of remote work for the world
It’s estimated as a result of COVID global pollution levels fell by 17%-25% (report). While not all of this dramatic fall can be attributed to a reduction in commuter travel its an important aspect when considering the pros and cons of remote employees.
According to Flexjob’s 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce report, 4.7m remote workers in the US results in over 600,000 fewer cars on the road.
Opportunities for diversity
As mentioned in the point above, offering work to people who find it difficult to work in an office will lead to better income distribution and less dependency on welfare.
Rural communities, that often lack white-collar workers, could be rejuvenated as more higher-paid people decide to work from home. Local services, including cafes, restaurants, gyms and co-working spaces could flourish as one of the benefits of remote work.
Drawbacks of remote work
The challenge is to recognise the potential disadvantages of remote working and propose solutions that either mitigate or overcome them. I’ll be exploring these in more detail but can summarise some of the challenges below:
Less connection / Feelings of isolation
When considering the pros and cons of remote working, one of the common negatives is the sense of isolation some people feel. This is because many offices are highly sociable places. Working for 8 hours a day with the same people leads to a lot of emotional bonds. I’ve lost count of the number of married couples I know who met at work. “Drinks after work” is a regular social event for many. Many more cite “office banter” as the thing they miss most.
My personal solution has been to form more friendships in my village. When I was commuting into London every day, by the time I got home it was usually too late to attend a meeting in the village. Furthermore, many people in villages meet during the day. By expanding my local social network I now have people I can meet during the day. I attend meetings about community issues or go to a gym class in the morning and stay for coffee afterwards. I don’t feel I’m missing out on ‘office life’ although I did make many friends at offices I’ve worked at previously.
Office space / Equipment
Some people are fortunate enough to have space at home they can convert into an office. Others can find it difficult. Either because they live in a shared household, don’t have a spare room or they have to share the space with the family.
My friend, Andrej in Ukraine, described it during an interview. He has two young children with a third on the way. He found it extremely difficult to work at home so rents a room in a studio in a nearby town.
For people who can’t work at home, many companies will need to subside the use of local co-working space to get the benefits remote work offers. These hubs will increase in towns and villages as people want some of the office benefits while being able to walk to and from the building.
Kate, who works at a large manufacturing company, recently told me that in her team creative meetings don’t work remotely. She describes these meetings as sessions where people are reviewing a mock-up of a new product or marketing campaign. They fire off each other, contributing ideas, changing things around in real-time, canvassing opinion and making a decision. She is sceptical it can be done remotely. I disagree but she’s adamant. Many people may feel the same unless a solution is presented that can enable the ability of creative teams to interact better.
Blur lines between office & home
For many, the main disadvantage of WFH is the blurring of lines between work and home life. In an office, a person arrives at 9, which is when work starts. They have lunch when work takes a break. Then around 5pm they leave, which is when work stops. It’s very straightforward.
At home, those lines are blurred. Work starts at 9 am, but then there is a knock at the door. It’s your Amazon delivery. You open it. Work stops. You notice the washing machine has finished it’s cycle. You unload it then remember you should be working. The dog wants to play. You have a Zoom call in 30 minutes. You put on a smart top but leave the pyjama bottoms. Work/Life can collide in ways that lead to an unproductive day and stress. It takes time, practice and discipline to balance the different aspects.
Moving from synchronous to asynchronous
Synch is in time
Asynch is out of time.
Synchronous, or real-time communication, is the typical mode of time in an office. A discussion with a colleague, a meeting, a telephone call, a Zoom call. They happen at specific times and need acting upon. Even apps like email, Slack and text are mostly in synch. When people see a notification on their screen or mobile they typically reply within 2 minutes. Most of us are used to this and don’t question whether it can be done any other way.
Asynchronous means working in your own time, not dictated by other people. If you can’t get a response in real-time then what are the ramifications? Perhaps you spend more time ensuring the person you’re asking has the information they need, rather than ask an ambiguous question? If you have time to respond maybe you provide a better, more detailed answer? The growing body of evidence, from companies such as Buffer, is asynch is one of the benefits of remote work because it’s more productive, less stressful and attains better results.
Conclusion: The benefits of remote work
There are many advantages of remote working for employees. In addition to the financial benefits, these include flexible hours, higher productivity, fewer interruptions and no commute. The benefit of remote working to a business include reduced office space required, higher employee retention, a larger talent pool and remaining competitive. There are some challenges which must be recognised and solved as companies transition from different modes of working.