I know the answer to this question. Because we always have. Can we put aside our age old habits of being herded into corporate offices like cattle to sit in cubes (I call them coffins) and try to find some piece and quiet so we can create that next document, model the next design, code the next service, or develop the next prototype? Speaking of old habits, why must our two main sources of collaboration be meetings and email? Many meetings are either about status or some person needs some information to solve a problem and invites everybody under the sun to help. Most of these types of meetings add value to very few people in the meeting at the expense of the others. Isn't it time for a change? As for email, nobody has a better story about ditching email then IBM's Luis Suarez.
Here are a few reasons why I feel that I am much more productive working remotely then at the office:
- Fewer distractions
- Fewer meetings
- More tools
- More accountability
- No hour lunches
- Better work/life balance
At the office, people are more willing to interrupt you because they can easily just walk up and ask you a question since they "know where you live". Just walking to get a cup of coffee can turn into a handful of hallway conversations, some work related, some not. When working remotely, people tend to reach out to you only after they have tried to actually find answers to their questions as opposed to just bugging the expert. Don't get me wrong, I love helping my fellow worker, but sometimes it is too easy to ask before people actually think.
Less meetings does not equate to less collaboration. It means less scheduled interruptions. Now some meetings are necessary, but most meetings can be avoided if people were allowed to use collaboration tools to ask and answer questions. Instead of holding numerous meetings, I prefer to have ongoing conversations via some messaging tool (IM, chat, Twitter, etc.). If I really need to focus on a task I can mark myself as away. There are many interesting and free tools that I have been experimenting with that have virtual white boards, video conferencing, and chat all integrated into one platform. Google Groups is another way to set up a collaboration area for discussion threads, document sharing, and archiving.
Many corporations see tools like instant messaging, chat, Twitter, blogs, wikis and others as a security threat and block them. This is almost comical since everyone simply uses their phones to access these tools anyways. Wouldn't people be more productive using these tools on their computer then on their phone? (See my article called Security or Insecurity?) When you work remotely, you can use the tools of your choice to collaborate. Even if I was forced to use a locked down corporate laptop at home, I would fire up my own PC to get access to the tools I need to do my job.
Some may disagree with me on this one. I believe that most worthy employees feel more obligated to focus and deliver because of the perception by management that working remotely allows people to screw off. I know that whenever I telecommuted, I sent my boss an email telling him what I expected to deliver and followed it with updates at the end of the day on what I accomplished. I felt privileged every time I worked from home and felt obligated to prove to management that I was providing value remotely.
No hour lunches
For me personally, a lunch break while working remotely, is the time it takes to get up from my desk, make a sandwich, and return to my desk (5 minutes). A lunch break at work is an escape from the daily grind at the office and usually takes an hour between the drive, ordering, getting served, getting the check, and driving back.
Better work/life balance
When I used to drive into the office every day, I would wake up at 6 to 6:30, catch up on my daily reading, and leave by 7-7:15am. Forty-five minutes and $10 of gas later, I would be at my desk by 8am. Typically I worked until 6-6:30pm and then spent another forty-five minutes and $10 in gas to get home. Now it is after 7pm. I have missed all of the kids sporting events and now its time to do help them with homework. Dinner fits somewhere in between and before you know it is after 9pm and you still have work to do before tomorrow. The cycle continues day in day out.
Now let's look at working remotely. I wake up around 7am. Catch up on my news and technology reading and start working by 8am. I work straight through until 6pm and am able to catch my kids soccer practice if I chose. We can get their homework done earlier, eat at a decent time, and still have time to play a game of Skip-O, tile rummy, or watch the Discovery Channel. Then, if I need to do more work after they go to bed, I am relaxed and feel like I am actually part of the family and not just part of their daily schedule. I also have a few more green backs in my pocket because I am not putting $75 in my tank every three days. Life is good!
Yes it can be done!
CIO.com is running a 3-part series on how a company named Chorus transformed their workforce to be entirely remote. If you look at the typical IT shop today, they are all leveraging some form of outsourcing, whether it is onshore, offshore, or both. In either case, there are a number of workers working remotely from some location other then where the IT shop is based. The irony is that these teams in other countries or in consulting firms within the states are all leveraging several of the tools that I mentioned above to effectively collaborate amongst themselves. I worked on a project recently where the consulting company had a few people onsite, some in Texas, Seattle, and Atlanta, and an offshore team in Macedonia. They were all productive from remote places across the globe. But mysteriously, telecommuting was frowned upon by the corporate culture. Don't figure! What message does that send to the employees of the company? Is it this message..."we trust our vendors to be professionals remotely, but not our own people...."?
Barriers for companies to embrace a remote environment
Having a handful of people working remotely is not a big deal. Mobilizing your workforce is. Part 2 and Part 3 of the CIO.com story about Chorus talks about the planning and the transition that they went through. Here are some of the barriers that I see that prevents companies from embracing remote work.
- Perception and resistance to change
- Requires capital and must be a priority project
- Needs business justification
- Requires good management and accountability
Many people perceive that their employees just won't be productive away from the watchful eyes of their managers. For some people this may be true. Then again, why are you paying people that you can't trust? Other people just fear change or won't risk taking on any challenging project.
Capital and Priority
Like any other enterprise initiative, a project of this magnitude requires executive level support, a well thought out strategy and project plan, capital funds, and a high enough priority that the milestones can be achieved. Oh, and don't forget to address the human side of change.
If it is not good for the bottom line, then don't bother. That goes for any project these days. Whether the savings is in reduced leases, power consumption, reduced employee turnover, or whatever, you should never ask for capital without the appropriate justification. While you are at it, don't forget to collect metrics to show management at a later date that the investment was worth it.
Good Management and Accountability
To pull this off, you must work with human resources and put together a policy that clearly set expectations. These guidelines, often part of the employee handbook, should be signed by each person who will be working remotely. But the real key is management. If your management is not doing a good job of making their staff accountable today, good luck trying to make them accountable at home. Maybe the first question to ask is do I have the right management in place to pull this off?
And finally, once a company establishes a remote work force, here are some other advantages that they have.
- Hiring - no longer constrained to local markets
- Reduced travel expenses
- Opportunity to sell real estate assets
I realized through my recent experiments with social networking that the recruitment world is much bigger then the local market leads you to believe. With a remote force, I can hire people anywhere in the country and even in the world if I have the proper controls in place. This gives me access to the top talent in the world, not just the top talent in my city. Think about that!
A lot of travel is required to hold various meetings with teams that are dispersed across offices. With the proper collaboration tools including video conferencing, virtual whiteboards, and integrated voice/chat, many of these meetings can be performed online. There will still be times where it is critical to have face to face time, but many meetings can be held more cost effective via the Web.
Sell real estate
IBM did this a few years back. Here is a great article from their web site that discusses the benefits of a remote workforce. If a huge company like IBM can pull this off, then there is no reason why any other company cannot. Here are the benefits that IBM gets from mobilizing their workforce.
So what do you think? Is the cost of gas and the improvements in social software making mobile commuting more of a reality then a fantasy? Is your company thinking about this now? I'd love to hear your story.
Productivity. Outfitting employees with mobile technology makes your business more productive because it enables employees to work from home, in transit and while visiting customers, business partners and satellite offices.
Recruitment. The ability to hire the best talent regardless of where they live can give you a leg up on competitors that still rely on a local workforce. And because most potential recruits perceive telecommuting as a benefit, this can provide a considerable advantage to your business by allowing you to fill jobs more quickly. In addition, the business becomes more efficient because lower turnover means less time spent training new employees.
Real-estate savings. With fewer people in the office, real estate expenditures and associated energy costs can potentially be reduced.
Remote computing can also help you avoid the disruption of a major move during a crucial time of growth when the business needs to focus on quality execution. A flexible workforce, often associated with the teleworking model, can also accommodate short-term spikes in business. This enables your business to add office space more judiciously rather than simply reacting to short-term demands.
Business continuity. You never know what’s going to keep your employees away from the office: inclement weather, flu or even traffic tie-ups. When employees have remote access to IT systems, they can continue working no matter what happens in or around your facility.