Why “The Troubled Future of Remote Working” Predictions Are Always Wrong

I saw the LinkedIn discussion, “The Troubled Future of Remote Working,” and reacted in my typical way: A loud, exhausted sigh.

Which no one heard because I work remotely from my home.

But then I sent the article to my remote colleagues and we shared a collective sigh. Because yes, it is entirely possible to collaborate and connect as remote workers–and headlines like this often serve as “water cooler conversation” on teams of #remoteworkers.

Our team shared ideas back and forth (remotely from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Colorado, and California, in a matter of minutes) about why remote working most definitely does not have a troubled future.

Remote work statistics show growth over the long-term.

A Wall Street Journal article from this summer called “The Boss Wants You Back in the Office” discussed six companies that have reduced or eliminated their telecommuting programs in recent years, as evidence that remote work is on the decline: IBM (2017), Aetna (2016), Honeywell (2016), Bank of America (2014), Reddit (2014), and Best Buy (2013).

Don’t clutch your pearls just yet.

The company I work remotely for, FlexJobs, partnered with Global Workplace Analytics this year to produce a report on the state of telecommuting in 2017. The report analyzes data from the U.S. Census which shows that telecommuting by employees has grown by 115% in 10 years, not including the self-employed or freelancers.

At this year’s TRaD Works Forum on telecommuting, remote, and distributed work, Gallup shared its latest findings on the State of the American Workplace, in which it found that in 2016, 43% of employees spend at least some time working remotely, up from 39% in 2012.

According to Gallup’s data, “remote working is on the rise across most industries.” The biggest increases in remote work participation are happening in finance, insurance, real estate, transportation, manufacturing and construction, and retail, with steady gains in healthcare, computer and information systems, and law or public policy.

But what about all that lost in-person collaboration? That “spark” that only happens when everyone is in the office?

MIT’s Peter Hirst also shared that during a pilot of remote work for MIT employees, “the results surpassed even our expectations…93% of our team reported that collaboration—a serious concern at the outset of the pilot—was better than before.”

So, while we occasionally hear about companies abandoning their remote work programs (and almost all of those companies have larger, underlying problems they’re trying to fix), the long-term trend shows that many more companies are allowing many more employees to work remotely to some extent.

A lot of people are #remoteworkers, even if they don’t call themselves that.

The Atlantic article “When Working from Home Doesn’t Work” gives the example of three airline pilots who are able to communicate well with each other without much verbal interaction because of their close proximity.

But pilots also communicate remotely with air traffic controllers and others, oftentimes from 30,000 feet in the air, and from different cities, states, or countries. That’s more or less the very definition of remote work.

Similarly, many “knowledge workers” are already communicating or working remotely, even if they aren’t doing so from home. Companies encourage people to communicate over email, IM, conference calls, screen sharing, and other remote communication tools.

With the best remote teams, communication and collaboration norms are established, practiced, and refined until the process of communicating remotely is seamless.

Xerox’s Vice President for North American Corporate HR Operations, Karen LaGraff summed it up really well:

“In any manager/subordinate relationship, the communication between manager and employee is key regardless if the employee is down the hall or across the country.”

The more the knowledge economy grows, the more workers will work remotely to one extent or another.

Remote work isn’t an “all or nothing” proposition.

Remote work isn’t going to “die” as some have suggested. Nor will it become the only way people work.

As with almost any cultural shift, remote work seeks an equilibrium.

Multiple studies have shown that there may be a remote work “sweet spot” where employees work remotely for a few days each week, and onsite the other days.

Other studies have shown that remote work is suited for certain types of jobs or even types of tasks.

And of course, on an individual level, some people like to work remotely (me, me, me!) and some do not (my husband).

Because remote work isn’t all-or-nothing, companies hire remote nurses, remote civil engineers, remote insurance investigators, and even remote neurosurgeons. We’ve seen every single one of these jobs listed on FlexJobs and lots of other surprising ones. They’re possible because of hybrid remote work situations.

Finally, more resources exist than ever before to help companies grow and manage remote and flexible workforces.

This next part is near-and-dear to me as I’ve been working with these organizations for the last seven years.

I’ve already mentioned FlexJobs, a job search website that helps to connect legitimate employers offering flexible and remote jobs with high-quality professionals seeking them. And TRaD*Works, an annual event that brings together remote work experts and thought leaders to share best practices and improve remote work.

There’s also Remote.co, a resource providing expert insight, best practices, and valuable support for organizations exploring or already embracing a remote team as a significant portion of their workforce. In collaboration with Remote.co, Mobile Minds is a project of the World Economic Forum’s Global Futures Council on Migration, which explores the global impact of remote work and as it relates to both the mobility of the twenty-first century workforce and workplace.

And 1 Million for Work Flexibility, the first national initiative creating a collective voice in support of work flexibility, including remote work. Check out its Fact Sheets on types of work flexibility, how to ask for a flexible work arrangement, and flexible work policy.

1 Million for Work Flexibility just published this fact sheet, The Business Case for Work Flexibility. Ever wonder just how much companies could save or gain by implementing remote and flexible work options? This fact sheet spells it out, including productivity, recruiting and retention, environmental impact, workers’ cognitive functioning, disaster preparedness, worker health, and total cost savings.

These organizations are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to organizations and resources helping companies, managers, legislators, government agencies, and workers make the most of remote work.

Where do we go from here?

One good thing always comes out of “end of the world” headlines like “The Troubled Future of Remote Working:”

It gives us all a chance to test our arguments and assumptions about remote work; to share knowledge and experiences; and to strengthen the arguments in favor of, and evidence supporting, remote work.

What I saw from the other folks commenting on this thread was overwhelmingly positive and pro-remote work.

Joshua Miller pointed out that,

“Engaging and empowering these workers is the job of modern team managers. There are so many tools available to facilitate this that there is no excuse for failing to make remote workers a valuable part of your organization.”

Becky Willard added,

“With technology today, it still baffles me when companies insist on a warm body to be in the office when the workload/tasks can easily support a remote worker. There are so many technology tools that can help keep remote workers, global workers, and office workers, connected as a team.”

And multiple people pointed out that remote work can help companies retain workers, recruit better talent, improve productivity, reduce work-related stress and health issues, and more.

If you’re interested in more along these lines, several participants from the TRaD Works Forum shared their tips and ideas with TechRepublic in the article, “How To Effectively Manage Remote Workers: 5 Tips from the Pros,” including experts from the World Economic Forum, ADP, Xerox, Cisco, the U.S. Congress, and Johns Hopkins University.

When IBM decided to end its program, I wrote this LinkedIn piece: “HR: Make the Most of Telecommuting to Avoid the IBM Trap.

In response to the Wall Street Journal article, I wrote this: “5 Reasons Remote Work Is Most Definitely On the Rise.”

And here I am again.

I might start these articles with an exhausted sigh, but after reading all of the wonderful, well-reasoned arguments supporting remote work, I’m always energized. The future of remote work is still bright.

Brie Weiler Reynolds is the Senior Career Specialist at FlexJobs, a LinkedIn Learning course author, and she’s been working remotely full-time since 2009.

Check out these two great courses: Brie’s Recovering from a Layoff and her colleague Mike Gutman’s Finding a Remote Job. Find Brie on Twitter, @briewreynolds.

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1 thought on “Why “The Troubled Future of Remote Working” Predictions Are Always Wrong”

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