by Sharon Florentine

Remote work: A productive perk worth keeping

Oct 04, 2017
CareersIT LeadershipStaff Management

Thinking of curtailing your remote work options? That’s exactly the wrong way to encourage productivity and innovation — and to attract and retain tech talent.

Digital transformation, innovation, disruption — it all starts with IT talent. So, if you’re thinking it seems counterintuitive to curtail benefits and perks that position you as an employer of choice for elite IT talent, you’d be right. Yet companies continue to roll back remote work polices, spurring talented IT pros to reconsider whether they want to work there.

Four years ago, Yahoo’s then-CEO Marissa Mayer learned this lesson the hard way, when she revoked the company’s remote work policy and required employees to be physically working in a Yahoo office. In March of this year, IBM’s Ginny Rometti made the same mistake, by issuing an ultimatum to employees: Come back to the office or find a new job.

Both companies are struggling to maintain relevance in an industry where newer, more nimble companies are out-innovating and disrupting the establishment. Both Yahoo and IBM have been attempting to “right the ship” by doubling down on innovation and collaboration, which they believe can happen only if workers physically sit together. It’s clear how that strategy has worked out for Yahoo. The verdict may still be out for IBM, but organizations that are tightening restrictions on remote and flexible work policies are looking at things the wrong way, says Vip Sandhir, CEO and founder of employee engagement platform HighGround.

[ Learn the keys to a successful remote work strategy and how to win the war for top tech talent. | Keep up on the latest in IT leadership with our CIO Daily newsletter. ]

“The traditional 9-to-5 in an office is a thing of the past,” Sandhir says. “A flexible work environment — whether it’s the option to [have] flex time, work from home occasionally or become a remote worker altogether — is one of the biggest draws for employees in the modern age. For companies that value their employees, want increased engagement and productivity and want to retain workers — and, don’t we all? — stripping away remote rights completely is a huge mistake,” he says.

Draining the talent pool

Rescinding remote work opportunities may get your workforce physically together, but which members of your workforce are staying, and which are now frustrated, disengaged and looking for a new opportunity? You’re severely diminishing the quality of your existing workforce by revoking remote work capabilities, as Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork, explains in this blog post for Fast Company, as well as impeding your ability to attract, hire and retain new talent, says Erika Van Noort, senior director of talent acquisition at Softchoice.

“One big advantage to supporting remote work is that it expands your talent pool beyond commuting distance around the office. Particularly for niche and highly technical roles, it helps to be able to recruit for these positions almost completely regardless of geography,” Van Noort says. In fact, Softchoice’s recent employee collaboration study revealed that, of the 1,000 full-time, North American office workers surveyed, 74 percent would quit their jobs to work for a different organization that allows them to work remotely more often, even if their salary stayed the same.

“Many organizations are struggling to recruit skilled tech and IT workers as a result of the nationwide tech talent shortage,” says Van Noort. “But when employers [can] expand beyond those who would be able to physically work in their office, they’re able to be pickier when it comes to selecting qualified employees. On a broader scale, accepting remote workers is especially helpful for companies across all industries whose offices are located in less-populated areas that may have smaller talent pools.”

Considering that the number of organizations with work-from-home capabilities is rising, this is becoming a key differentiator for job applicants. Inflexible workplaces likely deter many prospective employees from applying, therefore limiting their talent pool, she says.

As Kasriel notes, “Flexible work isn’t just the future of work — it’s already here. Forcing people back into offices is like handing them all paper time cards and telling them to start punching in and out.”

Van Noort says this sentiment is backed up by Softchoice’s survey. “It’s important to note that as young, tech-savvy employees continue to enter the workforce, remote work expectations will only increase. Another interesting finding from our study was the difference between millennials and Baby Boomers when it comes to remote work expectations,” she says.

Compared to Baby Boomers, millennials are twice as likely to feel more productive and better-equipped working at home than at the office. In addition, 88 percent of millennials believe their employer should equip them with the technology to work remotely, according to the Softchoice survey. And it’s especially crucial that companies meet those expectations, now that millennials make up the largest portion of the global workforce, Van Noort adds. Otherwise, they will be challenged to sustain growth.

Moreover, remote work increases an organization’s ability to attract and retain diverse talent, says Omer Molad, CEO and co-founder of Vervoe, an ATS and online hiring assistant platform that replaces face-to-face interviews with simulations.

“Being deliberate about remote work allows companies to access global talent pools,” Molad says. “They can bring together a hugely diverse range of people, incorporating different cultures, perspective and philosophies. Each new person will add to the company’s culture in a unique way. Not fit in, but rather add, and even challenge. The result is a rich tapestry of humanity, bound together by a common mission but diverse in every other way. For me, that beats sitting together,” he says.

Promoting productivity and inviting innovation

Offering flexibility in the form of remote work doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, says Van Noort. Providing employees some flexibility and choice over where and when they work has a positive impact on long-term engagement, especially for working parents or employees with lengthy commutes, she says.

“The advantage that we discovered in our survey doesn’t concern full-time remote employees, as much as it does workers who normally work at the office but who are provided with the technology and flexibility to work remotely on occasion,” she says. “We found the vast majority (85 percent) of North American office workers believe it’s important that their organization provides the technology support to work from home,” even if it’s not on a full-time basis.

The mistake that Yahoo and IBM both made is in equating innovation and collaboration with togetherness and placing those concepts at odds with productivity. This is a false correlation, says Vervoe’s Molad; they’re not mutually exclusive.

“People talk about productivity as the main benefit of remote working. I disagree. It’s a huge benefit to be sure, but it’s not the biggest. Maybe that’s why Yahoo and IBM banned remote working — they saw it as a choice between innovation and productivity and chose innovation. But that’s not the choice,” he says. “Both Yahoo and IBM were at points of inflection when they decided to bring their teams back to the office. They were facing significant business challenges — in Yahoo’s case, arguably, an existential challenge — and they thought that bringing everyone together would lead to innovation gains. It was a reactionary move by both companies,” he says.

“Innovation and remote work don’t have to be at odds. Some people might get their best ideas at the park, or in a co-working space. Then they might meet with colleagues the next day to kick things around, and then split up again. Why does it have to be all or nothing? I don’t subscribe to this black and white way of looking at working. Remote work is not a binary thing, and it doesn’t mean everyone works from home every day in their pajamas. That’s totally missing the point. There are so many ways companies, and teams within companies, can choose to organize themselves,” he says.

Organizations that provide their employees the autonomy to work where they want and when they want (within reason) stand to benefit greatly from increased engagement and productivity; and thus, greater innovation, says HighGround’s Sandhir. “When you give your employees the ability to make their own decisions and trust them to do what’s right, engagement skyrockets. And when engagement skyrockets, so does productivity. Want to know what happens when productivity skyrockets? Organizations see increased bottom lines. It’s a true win/win,” he says.

Ironically, Kasriel says in his Fast Company article, “in both a 2014 white paper by IBM’s Smarter Workplace Institute and in a conference panel the company hosted just weeks ago, its own experts suggested that remote workers tend to be happier, less stressed, more productive, more engaged with their jobs and teams, and believe that their companies are more innovative as a result of flexible work arrangements.”

So, if you’re looking for a way to boost innovation, productivity, engagement and your bottom line, the answer lies not in fewer opportunities for remote work and flexibility, it’s in offering more.