IBM is the latest company to make the news for rolling back options for flexible work schedules and working remotely. Earlier this year, the company announced that members of the U.S. marketing team—2,600 in all—would be required to work from one of six physical office locations: Atlanta, Raleigh, Austin, Boston, San Francisco, or New York.
Employees who live near an office location but had been working mostly from home would have to start commuting. And employees who work remotely from somewhere not near one of the six office locations were told to move or find another job.
The announcement from IBM brings to mind a similar move made by Yahoo in 2013, when then-HR head Jackie Reses sent a memo rolling back remote work and flexible work schedule options at that company for all employees, not just those already working remotely at the time. The company’s reasoning was that innovations and insight could only take place if employees were physically together and that productivity suffered when employees worked from home.
Unfortunately for Yahoo, terminating remote work options backfired: the company did not regain its position in the market, and last year Yahoo was sold to Verizon for $4.4 billion – down from a peak market valuation of $100 billion.
So where is the disconnect? Why do companies continue to reverse remote work policies when the results have been negative for others?
While the benefits of remote work and flexible work schedules have been clearly borne out across multiple industries, some companies might not have the right policies, procedures, and technology in place to maximize those benefits and leverage them for a competitive and financial advantage.
What are the benefits of flexible, remote work?
According to Gallup, up to 43 percent of employees in the U.S. spend all or some of their time working remotely. The main benefit of remote work for employees is fairly straight forward: Workers can arrange their work schedule to match their life schedule. No more taking vacation time for a dentist appointment, for example, or being forced to sit at your desk from 9 to 5 when your most productive hours are actually noon to 8 p.m.
But employees are not the only ones who benefit—there are upsides for employers too. For starters, many modern workers expect a flexible work schedule and/or the option to work remotely. Companies that offer these options are in a better position to attract and retain top talent than companies that don’t.
Policies that support remote work also mean that talent can come from and be anywhere. There’s no need to limit yourself to the best people in your immediate area when you can attract and support the best people in any area.
In addition to expanding the talent pool, other benefits of remote work and flexible work schedules include limiting workplace absences, increasing productivity by eliminating distractions, and reducing the money companies spend on things like utilities and office space.
More on remote work: Remote Work Equals Productive Work with the Right Tools
Avoiding common flexible work pitfalls
There are some jobs and positions that are not conducive to remote work or flexible work schedules, such as customer service or help lines where representatives need to be available at consistent, predictable hours.
It might also not be appropriate for new or inexperienced employees who need more supervision and guidance. Those cases are specific and far between, however. Many companies rolling back remote work opportunities are focusing on a few solvable downsides. Others don’t have the correct policies and procedures to maximize the potential benefits. Here are some simple steps you can take to avoid common remote and flexible work pitfalls.
- Give employees control of their time. Offering a flexible work schedule doesn’t mean that every employee works from home all the time. If no one was ever in the office, you could see a decline in collaboration and productivity. Rather flexible work schedules mean that employees have control to follow the schedule that works best for them.A working parent might put in his or her hours early in the morning to stay available for the kids in the afternoon, for example. Giving employees control of their time means they can determine when they can get the most, best work done instead of being forced into a schedule that might not meet their needs.
- Focus on results. Instead of focusing on the number of hours an employee sits at a desk, focus on creating a results-oriented workplace. With this approach, projects and deadlines are clearly spelled out, but how and when employees complete the work is up to them. Clear, measurable goals and well-defined expectations are key to a successful results-oriented approach. When done correctly, many employees operating in this environment complete their work more quickly and efficiently.
- Create accountability. It is true that remote employees who operate in a vacuum or have no sense of their place in the larger organization often produce subpar work and become separated from their peers. Creating a chain of accountability for remote workers can help avoid them becoming completely disconnected. Regular virtual or face-to-face status meetings, a weekly written report of progress on projects and goals or consistent “check-ins” can help remote employees feel connected, loyal and accountable to deliver high-quality, timely work.
- Create solutions that fit your specific needs. When it comes to remote and flexible work, remember that one size doesn’t fit all. A small start-up might have a 100 percent remote workforce while a larger organization might need employees in the office the majority of the time with the option for flexible work when needed. Some companies offer unlimited time off, some designate a day of the week when there are no meetings so employees have a large chunk of uninterrupted time, and some designate a percentage of employees who can work flexibly while the rest of the company operates on a more traditional schedule. Don’t worry about what everyone else is—or isn’t—doing. Focus instead on the solutions that work best for your company, industry and employees.
The right technology supports successful remote work
Whatever flexible work approach you choose, the right technology is key to help you implement it successfully. This is especially true when it comes to employee engagement, which is the largest and most serious potential pitfall of remote and flexible work.
Gallup reports that 20 percent of employees in the U.S. work remotely 100 percent of the time, but this group is also the least engaged among American workers. Leveraging technology including video conferencing and applications such as instant messaging, video chatting and collaboration software can help create a community and make even the most remote employee feel a part of the team.
Managers and executives can also use these technology solutions to get to know remote employees and better understand and meet their needs.