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Virtual Reality: Does Remote Work Work?

Matt Charney
By Matt Charney
on April 04, 2018

 One of my senior leaders once told me a funny story about the time his kid was asked about what Dad did for work. "He talks on the phone in the basement all day," the kid replied. This pretty much sums up a lot of people's perceptions about virtual work.

The optics of stuff like staying clad in business casual khakis and collared shirts (except for Fridays, which seems arbitrary, TBH), sitting in traffic and driving miles to go to a generic cubicle in a generic office to do what could instead get done in the aforementioned basement must be more important than productivity, engagement or retention.

 That's really the only conclusion you can draw from the fact that while it's a widely growing trend and principal driving force behind the purported rise of the "gig economy," virtual work remains just that in the eyes of far too many companies.

Working from home is, for whatever reason, often dismissed as a logical contradiction - despite reams of research suggesting that - just to scratch the surface, statistically speaking -  virtual workers work over two hours a day longer than their office-based counterparts, were about 1/3 more likely to express job satisfaction and scored an average of just around 25% higher in their annual performance reviews than those required to face time for face-time.

Is Remote Work the Killer App?

Oh, yeah. A recent Stanford study also found offering work from home opportunities cut attrition rates in half (that's right, a full 50% drop in annualized turnover) while 68% of currently employed job seekers - you know, the ones companies are apparently having a hard time hiring - say that they'd be more interested in considering specific opportunities if they offered virtual working arrangements.

It seems like any process improvement that simultaneously seems to reduce attrition (and the astronomical associated costs), makes hiring new workers easier and faster and saves companies a significant amount of committed capital expenses every year while making individual workers more productive would be a no brainer for businesses, particularly in today's low margin, high competition marketplace.

You'd be wrong.

Remote Control: Rethinking The Traditional Workplace.

remoteInstead, advocates of the "traditional workplace" tend to eschew quantitative evidence for more subjective, amorphous TA outcomes.

You know the ones.

 They're the kind of leaders who think unexpected "collisions" (effectively, these are, by definition, unsolicited work interruptions - yeah, this is an accepted theory, SMH) created by open office environments have more benefit than creating an environment conducive to working without having to worry about colliding with anyone at any time.

Or the kind of leader who wrongly assumes that showing how cool the physical space where employees are required to spend more time than their own homes is all that's really required when building an employer brand, ignoring the fact that for an increasingly large segment of today's workforce, the very concept of work is something you do, not somewhere you go.

 Culture and proximity aren't necessarily positively correlated, and as much as we'd like to believe that where work gets done matters in determining how (and how well) it gets done, there's no evidence supporting either of these theories. In fact, the opposite seems to be true - 87% of virtual workers said that they felt "extremely connected" with their company and their colleagues.

 Another assumption we should challenge is the notion that "traditional workplaces" are, in fact, traditional workplaces at all. In fact, the notion of having a distinct divide between work and home is actually a relatively modern invention. 

No matter how blurred the line between those two worlds may seem sometimes, the fact that we accept that there exists some sort of assumed separation between the two is proof that the modern office in no way, shape or form represents a "traditional workplace" at all.

 Traditionally speaking, my friends, work and home were traditionally interchangeable, assuming that the  tenant farming, artisanal trade and agrarian labor could be considered "working from home," even if it's not exactly true, in the literal sense.

There was no flexibility, nor any expectation for it from the largely sustenance based workforce, who proved what Silicon Valley would later discover: people are willing to give up a big part of their lives for a little free food.

Of course, then automation happened - the first time. The Industrial Revolution lived up to its name, and the shift from small-scale agriculture to big time industry forced, for really the first time in the secular or civilian world, the need for separate, dedicated workspaces and a workforce willing, for really the first time, to "go" to work rather than just, you know, work.

And so it went, until for some reason, the very notion of virtual work or the concept of working from home was largely abandoned. For two centuries, work was very much a place, end of story.

 In fact, it wasn't until the 1970s that the whole idea of telecommuting even reentered our collective consciousness, which was a very Seventies thing to do, honestly.

But what started out as a relatively radical theoretical construct soon became an increasingly mainstream reality for many workers - or at least, a very real possibility. Fully 50% of the US workforce today have jobs that could be done entirely through telework. Only 2.8%, however, take advantage of at least the possibility of working from home at least half of the time.

 So what gives? 

Studying Productivity Studies: Building The Business Case for Remote Work

 

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If you're looking for irrefutable evidence that remote workers are more productive than office-based employees, you don't have to look hard.

There's a ton of peer reviewed and immaculately researched studies which seem to comprehensively disprove the mistaken assumption that working from home is an obvious oxymoron. 

Enjoy a sampling of this sampling:

  • One popular study on the subject was performed by the founders of CTrip, a Chinese travel website. They allowed a portion of their call center staff to regularly work remotely for a nine month period. They found that their remote workers made 13.5% more calls than their office-bound counterparts, effectively putting in the equivalent of almost an entire extra days work.
  • Another survey by TINYpulse found that remote workers were generally happier and felt more valued than their in-office counterparts. On the downside, they had lower relationship scores with their coworkers.
  • Connect Solution found benefits for both employers and employees in cases where remote working was an option. 30% of workers accomplished a higher number of  key objectives in less time when working off site, and 52% were less likely to take time off work, even when ill.

For workers, these same studies suggest the principal benefits, beyond

not having to commute, include better sleep, increased quality of life and an improved attitude towards their work and their companies - which are kind of the principal outcomes of even the most straightforward and simple employee engagement strategy.

The Downsides of Remote Work

remote work copy

 Of course, as they say on commercials, these results aren't guaranteed simply because they work from home - many of these outcomes, of course, depend largely on the efforts and proclivities of these individual workers, the type of work and job related duties.

And yes, there are a ton of jobs (looking at you, healthcare) that require actually coming into work in order to get work done. Finally, the importance of face-to-face communication in building relationships and driving business eludes even the most sophisticated statistics.

 While there are some studies suggesting that employees working independently and with limited contact are more productive, there's also some evidence suggesting that the quality of that work is less consistent than those employees who work primarily from the office.

 Furthermore, remote workers often report encountering obstacles, real or perceived, to collaboration and productivity as a result of their virtual work status. Of course, these can be largely overcome with clear policies and the right technologies in place to not only enhance visibility, but also, ensure individual accountability, too.

The End Result: Does Remote Work Really Work? 

 

remote work

 With clearly defined expectations and boundaries, remote workers can be more productive and beneficial than those in an office, but of course, whether or not virtual work is the right solution for your company largely depends on your situation and your expectations.

 Furthermore, it also depends on your workers, too; certain age groups, like those crazy Millennials, and certain personality types or personal work styles are more inclined or predisposed to work effectively away from the office than others.

Make sure you understand the risks, as well as the rewards, before offering virtual work as a working option.

The overall benefits of remote work can far outweigh just increased employee satisfaction and improved employee engagement. From efficiencies such as decreased overheads and reduced carbon footprints (smaller offices mean lower rent) to significant spikes in worker retention, particularly among older workers who can stay in the workforce for longer, the new world of work  is increasingly becoming a virtual reality.

For reals.

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Matt Charney
Written by Matt Charney
With a unique background that includes HR, blogging and social media, Matt Charney is a key influencer in recruiting and a self-described “kick-butt marketing and communications professional.” He serves as Chief Content Officer and Global Thought Leadership Head for Allegis Global Solutions. Matt also serves as partner and executive editor for Recruiting Daily. Matt's blog, Snark Attack, was named one of the top 15 business blogs officially recommended by WordPress, the only HR-related blog with that distinction. Recognized as an "HR Gamechanger" by HR Magazine, a "Analyst Superstar" by HRO Today and a "Top Recruiting Influencer" by Huffington Post, Glassdoor, LinkedIn and Forbes, Matt has also spoken about talent topics at events such as South by Southwest Interactive, BlackHat, Reconverse and DefCon. He also serves on the advisory boards of several HR tech startups, including Rolepoint, Universum Global, HiQ Labs, Textio, Clinch, AdRecruit, NextWave HR, TextRecruit, TrustSphere, and Human Predictions.

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