Is a Remote Workplace really the Future?

Elaine Varelas offers insight into remote work and how managers can successfully manage remote employees.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I keep hearing how the traditional 9-5 office workday is on the way out and that flexible, remote workforces are in. As a manager, how would I manage employees if I can’t observe their work? Won’t work and life be blurred without set hours or work spaces? How will this work out for businesses? Is it really the future?

A: The interesting thing about onsite vs. remote workforces is that organizations are on very different sides of the debate right now. We’ve seen large, formerly remote organizations call their employees back to the office. We’ve also seen mid-sized organizations embracing remote workforces as they find real estate costs impacting office options. Organizations of all sizes are dealing with millennials—as well as other groups with childcare or commuting issues—who want to work remotely at least part-time to avoid the cost or waste of time associated with onsite work.

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The biggest challenge in this discussion is managers like you wondering how to manage remote workers. Most managers were never trained to manage people face to face, never mind remotely. These managers think that just seeing someone at their desk is management—it’s not. Managing time spent in the office isn’t effective. It’s crucial for managers to start measuring for performance, not face time. What measurable activities, projects, or deliverables are visibly being done in a timely fashion regardless of where the employee is? Do you see progress in projects? Revenue coming from salespeople? Determining exactly what the measurable deliverables are will be key in navigating the shift in how and where people work.

As for work/life balance, it’s plenty blurred already. We all have laptops and smart phones that allow work to take place anywhere, any time—just think of the last time you checked your work email from the beach or at a family dinner. Results of a remote workforce are varied, though—some organizations actually see their employees working more hours when they don’t have to commute because they end up contributing what would be commuting time to working. As businesses become more and more global, flexible, remote workforces may be non-negotiable—an employee might have to take a conference call from home late at night if they’re working with a client in Tokyo.

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It’s still an open discussion regarding how this will work out for organizations. Some industries and leaders will find that it works out perfectly for some roles with some managers. Others will find it unsuitable for their specific business. For example, tech support might function just fine, since they likely have clear deliverables and measurable output. But the company receptionist (or an ER nurse or kindergarten teacher) couldn’t perform essential job duties from home. Some employees will even find that they prefer being in the office with colleagues—perhaps they like the consistency or don’t have the space at home to work effectively. There is an enormous middle ground here, too. Maybe a remote group comes in one day a week for meetings and other activities that are valuable to camaraderie or cross-divisional relationships.

Many managers worry about company culture when people aren’t together, but culture is really about how employees treat each other, whether in person or via email. Managers also need to make sure that people who work effectively face to face are just as effective virtually, whether they’re discussing a project over the phone with a remote colleague, selling services via a web conference with that Tokyo client, or communicating with their manager on tasks accomplished. A more hybrid workforce will demand flexible skills from everyone, remote or not.

This isn’t “one size fits all”—companies will do what works for them, especially to keep their best talent, and that can change based on shifts in industry trends or company leadership. The traditional 9-5 office isn’t going to completely disappear, but as younger managers accustomed to effective remote work rise in the ranks, flexible workforces will start seeming like less of a big deal or threat. And worry not—some things will always need to be face to face.

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