We’re knowledge workers. Why do we need to show up in the same place every day? It’s not like we need to physically haul our digital bits up and down some sort of assembly line. So why is it so important that businesses cram every single employee into the same office, so they can silently sit next to each other – sending each other emails and instant messages?
Everyone knows what telecommuting is these days, but still, businesses are nervous about using remote workers. In this post I want to talk a little about some of the benefits of using remote workers, as well as some of the obstacles. Note that I’m going to use the term “remote worker” to indicate someone who may be a telecommuter, but may also just indicate someone working at a remote office.
Advantages of Remote Work
Remote Workers Can Mean Less Physical Infrastructure
Telecommuters frequently do not require businesses to supply office furniture, computers or telephones. A company who’s workforce was sufficiently composed of remote workers would have less need for physical infrastructure, such as a big office.
Remote Work is a Perk for Employees
To work remotely means the comfort of working at home, or perhaps a conveniently located local office, and often in a more casual and comfortable environment. Additionally, it can mean that many of the “costs of working” for the employee can be reduced or eliminated: primarily the cost of commuting. Especially in the current climate of high fuel costs, the benefit of not having to commute can be a significant financial gain for the employee.
Remote Work Means Not Having to Be Local
When it no longer matters if an employee happens to live near the office, the labor market opens up significantly. Suddenly it’s not so important whether there are jobs for someone in the town in which they live – they can get work from an employer in another city somewhere. From the employer’s perspective, if it becomes impossible to hire local talent in a particular area, perhaps they can find someone elsewhere. Freeing the labor market from geography also makes it more efficient – salaries are less likely to be either artificially inflated or depressed based on what’s happening in the local area.
So there are some clear benefits to using remote workers, or to being a remote worker. So why don’t companies do it all the time?
Problems with Remote Work
Best Practices Are Not Well Known
We don’t know how to manage people that aren’t in the office. It’s really that simple – many managers have never been trained in how to manage virtual teams, and are uncertain how to proceed. Old habits like “managing by walking around” is going to be more difficult when the staff isn’t in the office. Not knowing how to manage virtual teams can lead to fear, of course, and result in the manager rejecting the entire idea.
Furthermore, many of the standard mechanisms of management become harder without physical presence. Having a meeting where people call in remotely is often just not as good as one where all the people are in the same room. Getting a virtual team together can require more reliance on new technology, with makes some people uncomfortable. There’s nothing like wasting time trying to get some piece of collaboration technology to work to make you pine for a meeting where everyone is in the same room.
Lack of Trust
A common fear of managers is that remote workers won’t actually, you know, work. This fear generally has its roots in a low level of trust between management and workers, and additionally in the lack of a usable metric to accurately gauge worker productivity. If “productive” is merely defined as not being caught surfing the web by the boss then, yes, there is in fact no way to ensure that the worker is being productive.
Being Cut Off
One of the lesser known, but very real, problems with remote work is that the remote employee becomes separated from the hub office. This can mean important news doesn’t reach them, they feel like they don’t have input in decisions, and over time this can result in them being passed over for opportunities. The danger here is essentially that at a subconscious level, the people in the office don’t really consider the remote worker to be part of the team. This is the product of the cumulative difficulty in communicating with the remote worker.
In conclusion, there are some tremendous benefits for both employer and employee in virtual teams, but there are also some major challenges to overcome. In following posts on this subject I’ll talk a bit about methods and techniques that people use in working with virtual teams.
Worked in a virtual team? Have an experience to share? Send me an email at loren.davie <at> gmail.com, and let me know what you learned from it.