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Is Remote Work Really The Future?

If you’re even remotely (ha!) involved in online startup communities, you’ll likely have stumbled across a punchy Twitter thread or two stating, with absolute certainty, that the future of work is remote.

 

These tweets range from enthusiastic accounts of increased productivity and the joys of giving up a daily commute through to grand promises of socio-political change in the form of regenerated rural communities, diversified workplaces and lowered impact on our climate.

Granted, Twitter may not be the best place to share a complex, nuanced belief system. Brevity, after all, is baked into its very concept. It’s maybe then somewhat of an unfair assessment of the collective thinking of a community. And yet, these sweeping statements are hard to ignore. Particularly when arguments are doubled down in threads and support tagged in, camps set up, and hard lines drawn.

So, in hopes of opening up dialogue and looking a little deeper, we’re asking the question– is remote work really the future? We think maybe not.

But hear us out.

As a concept, ShieldGEO is a big supporter of remote work. Our team is distributed across 8 countries, with many members opting to work from their homes. Of those who work in our two office spaces in Sydney and London, nearly everyone works from home at least some of the time. We see remote work as a tremendous asset to both our company culture and business model. It’s given us access to fantastic talent all over the world, lowered our costs, and has helped us to look after our employees, making them happier, healthier and more productive as a result.

Studies and anecdotal evidence across the world back these claims up.

Of the 2,500 remote workers involved in Buffer’s State of Remote Work study, “99% said they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.”

In a productivity survey run by Sure Payroll, more than two-thirds of remote workers reported increased productivity compared to commuters.

These findings were also seen in a CoSo cloud study, which found 77% of remote workers report higher productivity while working off-site and 30% accomplished more in less time.

It’s also fast-growing. Working-at-home, among the non-self-employed population, has grown by 140% since 2005, nearly 10x faster than the rest of the workforce or the self-employed.

In a survey of 1,000 hiring managers, 55% agree that remote work among full-time employees is more common now, and say they expect up to 38% of their full-time workers will be working remotely in the next decade.

It’s not that we don’t think remote work is good. For us, it’s been undoubtedly so. Or even that it’s not going to play a part of our future. We’re sure it will. It’s just not the only good option.

“The basic fact is that humans are infinitely different as individuals, as groups, as teams, as nationalities. Infinitely different,” says Tim Burgess, co-founder of ShieldGEO. “And even individual humans are not static – they change over time.”

By claiming remote work is the only future, we’re excluding whole groups of people while also downplaying the effectiveness of other solutions.

“It actually suits me really well to work from home, but I understand that’s not the case for everyone,” says Maya Middlemiss, CEO at BlockSparks OÜ, and Associate with Virtual Not Distant, whose been working remotely for 18 years.

Though she’s a big advocate for embracing remote work, Maya doesn’t think it should be the sole future of work.

“What I hope we will see is greater personal insight into what people need to do their best work and more flexibility from organisations,” she says.

“It should be based around the needs rather than the expectations or what’s traditional or normal for an organisation.”

It’s not as simple as just deciding to go remote

“I think people are looking for a quick fix,” Tim says. “If you do these five things you can set up a remote company and it’s going to be a breeze — and it’s just not that easy.”

For as many articles and studies releasing the benefits of remote work on productivity and employee happiness, there are others explaining the difficulties.

Upwork’s annual Future Workforce Report found that remote work was on the rise but questioned whether we were ready for it with the majority (57%) of companies lacking any remote work policies.

Common issues faced by remote workers include isolation, loneliness, disconnection and missing out on spontaneous communication (that incidental chit chat by the watercooler, or walking to the elevator.) Without robust policy and intentional management, these concerns can have long-lasting effects on both the employee and employer.

According to Igloo’s 2019 State of the Digital Workspace report, 70% of remote employees feel left out of the workplace.

A TINYpulse study co-authored with Owl Labs backed this up finding that the biggest challenge for remote workers is staying in the loop and that “conversations and celebrations were things that they missed most when working remotely.” They also found remote workers had 25% fewer career growth conversations than their onsite counterparts.

“Shifting to a fully remote or fully distributed does require a major cultural shift,” Tim says. “You have to change the way you communicate and interact. Work has to be all around output, and ideally, you want to make everything visible in a central place.”

There need to be policies in place to deal with the changes to employees’ location. Check-ins need to be more intentional, communication needs to become more open, and you need to switch to judging employees on their actual work over how long they’re at their desks or other measures that only work in person.

Remote work doesn’t work for everyone

“It’s not for everybody I think that’s the thing to keep in mind,” Tim says.

“Even if we just said remote work is the future for software engineering — let’s just pick one industry — that means every single software developer would have to have somewhere outside of an office where they were comfortable working. Does that mean they have to have a spare room in their house?”

On top of the practicalities, “it means that they have to be responsible for their own habits and work practices in that space. And that’s not for everybody.”

Tim himself prefers the in-office experience despite being an advocate for remote work for his employees.

“I find it keeps me focussed on what I’m doing,” he says.

“I quite like outsourcing that responsibility of — ok now you’ve got to start work. People are going to be looking at your screen, you can’t just drift around google. I outsource all that responsibility just by having people around.”

That’s not to say Tim promotes a traditional office experience. For him, breaking up his day around school drop-offs, gym sessions and family time are all much-preferred methods of bringing balance to work and life.

Flexibility — a more inclusive way

Of all the good that comes from remote work, we’d argue that there’s more from a flexible model. By nature, flexibility includes remote work as well as a myriad of other options depending on the individual circumstances of an employee and employer.

New York-based platform, Werk, helps companies to improve their employee experience through flexibility. They use behavioural science, predictive analytics, and on-platform solutions to help employers find the best flexible solutions for their employees.

In their recent study, The Future is Flexible, Werk found “a significant gap between the supply and demand of workplace flexibility.”

They found “96% of the workforce needs some form of flexibility, yet only 42% have access to the flexibility they need, and only 19% have access to a range of flexible options.”

Werk describes a flexible job as “a full-time role with a structured set of time or location-based modifications.” These modifications are represented by six key terms:

  • Time Shift — Unconventional hours
  • Micro Agility — The freedom to adapt (stepping away for short periods to accommodate the unexpected)
  • Desk plus — Location variation
  • Remote — Location independence
  • Travel Lite — Minimal travel
  • Part Time — Reduced workload

Unfortunately, Werk found that “companies are significantly under-delivering to their employees across every flexibility type.”

Interestingly, many of the arguments around remote work would be more accurately ascribed to other flexible options, including location variance rather than complete location independence or being fully remote.

In fact, Buffer’s State of Remote Work study found that “a flexible schedule is the biggest benefit to remote work.”

This could suggest that, for those who are unable or unwilling to work remotely, there is still a way to enjoy the benefits by embracing micro agility or unconventional hours.

Of the six measures of flexibility, desk plus was the most in demand, followed by micro agility.

“This is an important distinction to make because not every role lends itself to full location independence, and most employees don’t need to be fully remote to maximise their productivity,” says Annie Dean, co-CEO of Werk.

“We’ve seen so many companies make the mistake of assuming that all of their employees want to work fully remote, and then struggling to make it work.”

When the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, they’re likely to deem flexibility a failure and shelve the idea in favour of their previous, more rigid policies.

“No matter how well-intentioned, the truth is that not every employee benefits from working away from the office midweek, and not all employees do their best work from home. That’s why it’s important for companies to really understand the nuances of flexibility and the needs of their employees before rolling out any new policy.”

Flexible working should be just that — Flexible

When we throw all our eggs in one basket or commit ourselves entirely to one extreme or the other, we don’t allow ourselves, or our employees, room to evolve or simply change their mind.

“It’s important to remember that flexibility is rarely stagnant. Our needs change with the seasons, as we age, and as we hit new milestones and major life events. That’s why we encourage flexibility to be an integral and ongoing part of the employee/manager relationship,” Annie says.

By involving your employees in the conversations around flexible offerings, you’re more likely to find solutions that actually work for their unique situation. There needs to be room to switch things up, trial things and find out what actually works.

“When we work with companies, we give them the option to provide their employees with custom flexibility profiles based on the results of their assessment. These profiles help employees to better understand their own flex needs and encourage them to engage in conversations with their manager about those needs,” Annie says.

“This helps both parties stay open and honest about the flexibility arrangement, assess what’s working and what isn’t, and to make adjustments where necessary—because ultimately, it’s all about maximising the productivity of the individual.”

Finding your individual flexibility profile

We’ve found the arguments for or against remote work to be too binary and non-inclusive. The focus seems to have moved away from what’s best for the individual in favour of loyalty to a cause. Our own experiences and, interestingly, much of the data cited in the arguments for and against remote work tend to promote a more flexible approach.

Complete location independence or remote work is undoubtedly the answer for some, but it won’t be for others. Some will prefer a hybrid approach, while others would prefer flexibility in hours over location. When we embrace flexibility, we embrace a future where all people have the opportunity to work in the ways that are productive and successful for them. There is no need to move from one rigid structure to the another, but simply to find the balance that works well for your situation, while also allowing you and your employees the freedom for that to change.

 – Bree Caggiati

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