The phrases “remote work”, “telecommuting” and “distributed teams” are becoming more and more trendy in today’s evolved world. But what do these terms mean? In a nutshell, these are umbrella terms for any work occurring outside the traditional office.

According to the study held by the Society of Human Resource Management, remote working has increased from 20% back in 1996, to 60% in 2017. However statistics provided by the European Union statistical website Eurostat, state that remote workers increased from 11.8% to 14.5% between 2006 and 2015.

There is still some controversy on the issue. Telecommuting comes in many flavours, and a high percentage of organisations only allow ad-hoc remote work for their employees. Other organisations feel that remote work is only suited for specific jobs, and from an employee point of view, not everyone is willing to work remotely. Since telecommuting is such a new trend, one can find a number of arguments for it but not so many arguments against it from companies who have tried and failed. Let’s examine both sides of the coin.

Benefits of Telecommuting for the Future of Work

A lot of people are remote workers, even though that’s not how they define themselves.
What percentage of the people you know, work directly in their employer’s office? And what percentage of people do you know actively check their work email outside working hours?

  • Improving Productivity

Employees are finding it harder to reach maximum productivity in an office environment. So much so that a large number of companies lose a substantial amount of money in productivity as a result of water cooler gossip, excessive commuting or health problems, just to mention a few. Eliminate the latter issues and employees will be more efficient. In fact, two thirds of employers reported an increase in productivity from remote employees. Removing something as simple as a twenty minute commute to work will allow employees to retain more of their time in the day and adjust to their personal, mental and physical well-being needs to improve productivity.

  • Better for your Health and the Environment

The average person in Britain spends 60-80 minutes getting to and from work. As a result of this, and according to a report published by the Royal Society of Public Health in the UK, 55% of people felt more stressed. Although no specific figures are recorded to date for Malta, the worsening traffic situation means that most employees spend a minimum of 60 minutes pre day driving to and from work. Telecommuting is a great way to improve the overall well being of employees, as well as being part of reducing the carbon footprint. In turn, this will also result in a reduction in traffic jams and traffic accidents.

  • Decreasing Costs

Keeping costs to a minimum is on everyone’s agenda. Companies that embrace remote working save money on office space, bills and office supplies. On this note, businesses do not have to worry about losing productivity should a power outage occur or any bad weather or natural disaster that may hinder travel. An additional cost benefit is linked to having a lower turnover of staff, hence less hiring and less training. Not to mention, a lower rate in absenteeism.

  • Improving Employee Retention

Following on the above mentioned point, recruiting and training new staff comes at an expense, therefore companies are always looking for new ways of retaining their current employees as well as improve their hiring process. Flexibility and telecommuting expands the talent pool as it provides access to disabled employees and an alternative to parents and senior individuals who otherwise would be out of the workforce. Statistics also show that 36% of employees would choose flexibility and telecommuting over a pay rise as these offer a work-life balance and hence improve the satisfaction of the employee.

Disadvantages of Working Remotely

While remote work may be a good approach, it may not be an ideal scenario for everyone. There are disadvantages to telecommuting, however one will have to evaluate whether they overshadow the disadvantages of co-located teams.

  • Lack of Camaraderie

Everyone can agree that working alone with just a computer screen to keep you company is very different from the rush that one finds in an office. Offering remote working means that you cannot randomly stop by a colleague’s desk to see how work is going; i.e. there is a loss of togetherness since employees and employers do not interact face-to-face on a daily basis.

A simple solution for this would be to organise frequent team get togethers both for strategic planning purposes as well as for team building purposes. This will also provide the team with a strong understanding of what the company values are.

  • Difficulty or Lack of Communication

With a distributed team, the right communication streams have to be used to strike the right balance between roping in employees unnecessarily and involving them proactively. At times, the other person may not be available at the other end of the line, or you may want everybody in a single room to sort everything out at once. The main concern would be that some information may slip through the cracks.

Virtual meetings can easily be organised between the employees. In addition to this, there are project management tools which allow you to keep track of what everyone says in one place.

  • Possible Low Reliability and Retention

Since team spirit will be harder to develop, remote workers may feel less guilty about moving on to new opportunities. Trust is also an issue; how can you be sure that they are putting in the work needed?

Remote work is a skill that should be looked for in the resumes during the recruitment process. Look for someone who has done it before, owned his own business or went out of his way in past experiences. Documenting the work that is being done is another indicator that will allow you to track what is being covered by your remote employees.

  • Difficult to Manage and Maintain

It is easy to ignore remote workers and it can be harder to evaluate their productivity. The most obvious concern for employers is not having the team groupedd in one physical place. This means that you cannot demand their attention when you want, you cannot check up on them and it becomes harder to hold them accountable.

Nowadays you can make use of time tracking tools which monitor billable hours, ensures that they are not working overtime, as well as allows you to see what projects the remote workers are working on in real time. Having a culture of transparency will also encourage good expectations accountability as they will know what is going on within the company.

Telecommuting has moved beyond being just another millennial trend. Agencies raising concern and shying away can easily try it out by starting small and hiring a freelancer or offering the team one or two days a week to work remotely - this first step will help identify the increase in productivity and growth impact telecommuting and remote working have on a company. This will also highlight the benefit of employing and retaining members of staff who may otherwise not be available for the traditional routine office job.

Note from the author: I have been working remotely from Sweden within Konnekt for the past 4 months. Towards the end of 2017, I decided to relocate to Sweden and Konnekt, already knowing my potential, decided to keep utilising my talent even though I was not living in Malta any longer. I use a variety of communication tools particularly Skype to maintain face to face communication and although there was an adjustment period, this way of working remotely has proved successful to retain me within Konnekt whilst also ensuring that my personal goals are met.

Martha Camilleri

Generalist Recruitment Specialist

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