You are currently viewing Evaluating ‘Remote Work’ success depends crucially on What Else Has Changed

Evaluating ‘Remote Work’ success depends crucially on What Else Has Changed

Remote work is more productive. Remote work is less productive. Remote workers are more engaged. Remote workers are less engaged. They are more stressed. They are less stressed. Homeworking is more sustainable. Homeworking is less sustainable.

Over the past three years, we’ve heard it all. But what is the real picture?

These are all questions I tackle in detail in my forthcoming book, Beyond Hybrid Working. In this article, I’ll try to provide some helpful principles to help people understand what’s actually happening.

Hopefully this will help researchers adopt more targeted and nuanced methodologies, and assist organisations in thinking through how best to make decisions about making work better, wherever people are working. Possibly, it may help journalists to avoid simplistic binary interpretations – though I doubt it will be of any interest to the headline writers looking for a bit of controversy and online notoriety.

First of all: ‘Remote Work’ is not a single phenomenon

I have to admit, I really don’t like the term ‘remote work’ – it’s a prime candidate for my bonfire of useless terminology. But it’s current, and informs many of the poor implementations of … remote working. So, with a very deep sigh, I’m using the term in what follows. Sadly, it’s a term infused with proximity bias, implying that there is a main or most important place for work, and then there are people who are not there: they are distant, in some respects disconnected: they are remote from where the real action is.

And that’s how many homeworking and hybrid working arrangements are conceived and implemented. In practice, they are often like reheated 1990s teleworking programmes, usually with outdated guidance to match. Little has changed in the way people are expected to work. Employees are permitted to work from home – it’s usually from home – as a kind of benefit. Procedures may be put in place to mitigate what are expected to be the downsides of this.  It revolves more around being seen as an employee benefit, rather than part of a thorough rethinking and improvement of how people work.

There are also implementations where people are forced to work from home, usually associated with the closing or downsizing of real estate

In both of these cases, the range of benefits can be expected to be limited. And some people can be expected to be unhappy with the new arrangements. In the voluntary example above, it may be because of the limitations homeworkers may face, for example because of bureaucratic time-reporting systems, requirements to attend an office on set days despite work activities not requiring it, or because there’s a two-tier culture that marginalises people who don’t work in the ‘main’ workplace.

In the forced-remote-working case, unhappiness may arise not only from lack of choice, but lack of appropriate support for their new working circumstances.

The crucial factor for success is what else has changed

Those were two examples of the inadequate implementation of remote working. What about the better versions?

Well, let’s look at where an organisation has a clearly-stated strategic purpose in wishing to widen the scope of their recruitment, and have new procedures for retaining valued employees when their life circumstances change. Hiring managers, recruiters, and all associated HR functions have been updated to support this new approach. There’s a ‘virtual-first’ approach to ensure that all employees, wherever they work, work with the same systems and within the same culture to facilitate team cohesion and effective working.

For some organisations, this is a development, perhaps an evolving new practice while they remain substantially premises-based. Another company, perhaps a fast-growing startup, wants to develop on a much more footloose basis. They are happy to employ ‘remote workers’, and use third-party spaces on an as-needed basis. Perhaps they will be entirely remote as an organisation, or perhaps at some point in their growth they will feel the need to occupy some premises as well. But the culture and working practices have been there from the outset to consign the main workplace/remote worker distinction to irrelevance.

Another organisation – and this has been my field of work over the years – is going for a fully Smart/Agile implementation. People working in multiple locations is one facet of a comprehensive, strategic and integrated programme that brings transformational changes across workplace, technology and culture, and targets with great intentionality key benefits (such as improving productivity, recruitment, work-life balance, environmental performance, etc).

Within such more holistic programmes, we also see variations of control and empowerment in how they are implemented.

So we have all these different contexts in which ‘remote working’ is implemented. Some implementations expect benefits to drop on the plate. Others actively work to make them happen.

Unfortunately, what we don’t find (except for very rare exceptions) is research or commentary that makes distinctions between such different operational contexts of remote working.

Reporting different outcomes for different types of implementations

So I’d like to make a plea to all researchers and commentators, to dig a bit further into what else has changed. Don’t generalise a finding from a narrow or ill-conceived homeworking implementation to write off potential benefits, as if it applies to all contexts. Nor should researchers, or indeed remote-work evangelists, generalise from a well-structured and comprehensive programme to project inevitable productivity or sustainability benefits. Without putting all the right elements in place, they might not happen, or fall way short of what they could be.

So, to help break this down a bit, let’s attempt to categorise the different kinds of implementation of remote working.

Remote working as exception to default office-based requirement

    • Minimal permission-based homeworking, with eligible individuals needing to apply for permission
    • Homeworking available for some roles, at manager’s discretion
    • Homeworking as a mitigation measure after a major relocation, to retain staff
    • Remote working more extensively available as part of hybrid working, but limited by mandates for a number of days in office per week
    • Remote working more extensively available as part of hybrid working, but limited by mandates for percentage of time in office over longer period (i.e. this allows for a little more worker discrettion)
    • Remote working as per any of the above, with prescribed or core hours when (online) presence is required
    • Full-time remote as an agreed workstyle in an organisation that remains predominantly office-based

‘Remote working’ in wholly remote (part of) organisation 

    • Compulsory homeworking as a result of local office closure, while colleagues elsewhere carry on as before
    • Compulsory homeworking for whole organisation running alongside extensive property downsizing
    • Either of the above, with new technologies, support and procedures for work (possibly with additional benefits package)
    • Remote working in an organisation set up from the start to be premise-less, with all the structures and support in place to facilitate it

‘Remote working’ integrated into a major programme of workplace change

    • Downsizing programme with hotdesking, predicated on increases in remote working
    • Agile working programme introducing new activity-based work spaces, providing more choice and variety of work settings, with a ‘controlled hybrid’ approach to working off-site
    • Smart/Agile programme on a ‘flexible hybrid’ or ‘smart mature’ basis, maximising choice across the ‘extended workplace’

Nature of work as a factor

    • Any of the above where the work is seen primarily as heads-down focus work
    • Any of the above where work involves more extensive interactions with colleagues and/or customers
    • Any of the above where home (or other third-party location, e.g. coworking space) is used as a base for travelling out to clients (etc)

We should also note that most research and commentary focuses exclusively on employees. The rise in the number of employees homeworking has risen dramatically since the pandemic. But much of the pre-pandemic pace-setting was from freelancers, the self-employed and micro-businesses. They have also led the way in using coworking centres. So in these cases, a comparisons with office-based colleagues can’t be made. However, they often make the case for many benefits that inform their choices for ways of working.

So, we have multiple forms of remote working / homeworking. Like needs to be compared with like. Aggregating terrible, middling and excellent implementations to come up with aggregate figures tells us very little that is actually useful.

So come on, researchers! Get with the nuance, and tell us what exactly it is that works well, and what are the cardinal sins to avoid when it comes to remote working!