Remote work, a.k.a. location-independent work, is a key strategy in the global response to COVID-19. As such, its adoption increased sharply – practically overnight. Six months on, opinions about its effectiveness and sustainability are widely varied, with companies at one end of the spectrum suggesting that they will never return workers to an office and those at the other end claiming remote work is an unmitigated disaster. The challenges and benefits are well-known, but companies have had varying success in overcoming those challenges and have a difference of opinion on the actual benefits. Putting aside for the moment questions about how benefits are measured, why does the result differ so dramatically from one organization to another?
In this article I will discuss a few of the factors that contribute to a successful location-independent work strategy.
Physical proximity is ingrained in the culture of many companies. Managers expect to see workers performing tasks. Career progression hinges on visibility. Hallway conversations are the primary channel for communication. Policies, procedures, job descriptions, and training have all been designed with location-dependent (in-office) workers in mind. Workers in these organizations may struggle to be recognized, often feeling pressure to perform in ways that reduce effectiveness such as clocking excessive hours, speaking in conference calls just to be seen as engaged rather than actually adding value to the conversation, and neglecting to disconnect from work at the end of the day.
Other companies have already incorporated location-independent work into their culture with outcome-based performance management, formalized tools and techniques for collaboration and communication, and policies that do not assume a specific location for workers. Workers in these companies are likely more engaged, more productive, and have a better work / life balance.
Critical Success Factor: a company culture that embraces location-independent work.
With location-dependent work, the company takes responsibility for physical security (such as access control) of the workspace; the same is not possible for location-independent work where the onus shifts to the worker. Likewise, the security of physical documents becomes the responsibility of the location-independent worker.
Critical Success Factor: security awareness training that clearly communicates the security responsibilities of location-independent workers and explains how to meet those responsibilities.
Nature of work performed
Clearly not all work is suited to location independence. For example, roles that require face-to-face contact with customers or physical manipulation of objects are not good candidates (although advances in robotics are breaking down barriers to the latter). Complex workflows that cross many roles, requiring a high degree of collaboration, may reduce the suitability of those roles for location-independence. Innovation roles can be performed remotely, but this depends on the use of structured innovation processes, practices, and tools.
Critical Success Factor: a ‘Future of Work’ plan that identifies which roles are suitable for location independence based on defined criteria.
We all have different personalities – some of us can only truly thrive when we are around our colleagues frequently, while others prefer to focus in a quiet, distraction-free environment. Some of us have an ideal workspace at home where we can be comfortable and productive while others are constrained in their work-at-home options. An effective Future of Work plan will accommodate the varied circumstances and needs of all individuals, incorporating ways for people to maintain social connections with colleagues (even if that means virtually), providing suitable workspaces – whether through hoteling facilities or assistance in setting up work-from-home arrangements, and avoiding any unfairness (real or perceived) between location-dependent and independent workers.
Critical Success Factor: a ‘Future of Work’ plan that provides for the needs of both location-dependent and -independent workers.
Securing the infrastructure used by your remote workers requires more than providing them with a VPN connection. The ‘bad actors’ of today invest millions of dollars in state-of-the-art technology with one goal in mind – stealing and exploiting your data; for these ‘bad actors’, remote workers can be easy prey. In addition to a VPN you need to consider intrusion detection, endpoint encryption, endpoint backup, malware scanning, firewalls, security monitoring, training to prevent social engineering attacks, and device health checks.
Critical Success Factor: technology infrastructure that is secure, scalable, and reliable.
Your data architecture must also be secure. This means data is protected from prying eyes (confidentiality), protected from unauthorized manipulation or corruption (integrity), and available to location-independent workers as and when needed (availability).
Critical Success Factor: data architecture that is secure.
Collaboration and communication are often cited as two of the biggest challenges of location independent work. Technology is far more advanced now than in the early years of remote work, with countless tools available – each with unique features and limitations. A well-chosen collection of scheduling, conferencing, project management, and collaboration tools will contribute greatly to improved productivity and effectiveness. Ideally these tools should be chosen as a ‘matched set’, as each integrates best with specific others.
Critical Success Factor: a ‘matched set’ of scheduling, conferencing, project management, and collaboration tools.
The #futureofwork will be a hybrid of location-dependent and independent work. Your organization must determine what your optimal balance is based on many factors. If you do not currently have the critical success factors in place, it doesn’t mean that location-independent work isn’t a fit for your company – but it does mean that you need a plan that puts the necessary conditions in place for it to succeed.
Smeltz Consulting Group specializes in helping clients determine the balance that is best for their business and to develop a plan for getting there, optimizing the benefits while mitigating the risks. Contact us to see the business benefits we can deliver.