Embracing and Assessing Remote Work

Is remote work right for every organization? Some people will state unequivocally that all organizations should embrace the practice of employing remote workers; in fact, literature suggests that remote is the future of work.

That said, what exactly is remote work, and what does it mean in your context?

The term remote refers to work conducted by, “individuals and teams who are not required to show up at a specific physical location on a regular basis.” The degree to which this happens can vary greatly; we have identified five classifications that span the remote work continuum:

  1. All work is performed during working hours within the walls of the organization’s work-space. Employees work from a colocated space 100 per cent of the time with traditional hours (e.g. Monday to Friday, 9a to 5p); Some choose to operate in this manner because they regularly create, access, or process sensitive data and the physical space is a core part of the security strategy. This is often the case for government organizations and security firms who need to take extraordinary measures to ensure protection of data.
  2. Employees have a physical office managed by their employer, as well as the freedom to work outside of the office, 1-2 days/week or a few times a month. From our experience, these sorts of organizations view working from home periodically as a “perk” and not necessarily as a strategic advantage. Some of the people we met in this classification felt their managers were skeptical of what level of productivity could actually happen from home. However, we also saw that many organizations were undergoing a transition and allowing their employees the opportunity to work remotely on occasion, which in turn gave the organizations more flexibility for things like job sharing and office space.
  3. While there is still a building, or home-base, employees have a higher level of flexibility in where they work. This classification is growing in popularity, especially in more tech-centric organizations. Some employees might be required to spend most, or all, of their time in the office due to the nature of their job, while others are free to work from wherever, so long as they continue to meet expectations. Certain organizations we met with viewed such flexibility as a significant advantage in attaining difficult-to-hire talent. (For example, a relatively small organization in Kelowna, BC needed to hire a technical engineer with a specific skill set. Potential candidates were unwilling to relocate to small town Canada, but they were able to find someone located in Norway to build and lead a remote team in China.)
  4. These organizations are fully distributed with a building(s) somewhere from which employees can work, have retreats, conduct client meetings—but there is no requirement for them to ever be there. These companies are still relatively rare, but are more popular in tech, perhaps because these companies’ core processes are embedded in location agnostic technology. US based Rimon Law Firm is an impressive example of this remote working form with at distributed staff of 110, including 80 attorneys.
  5. These organizations have no physical building, anywhere. If face-to-face client meetings or gatherings are called for, a third-party space is required. Co-working spaces, hotel lobbies, or even coffee shops can provide such spaces. In this context, workers determine where they work, are completely location independent with most communication happening virtually.

Questions to Clarify Before Exploring Remote Work

Wherever you are on the remote work continuum, it is important to establish a baseline to ensure employee success — both colocated and remote. These questions will help you identify what’s currently in place, what needs to be developed in order to move forward in supporting a remote workforce, and where you may find room for further flexibility.

  • What functions of each role are dependent on being in the office? (Think job analysis)
  • Is technology in place to support this role, remote or colocated?
  • Are appropriate virtual communication tools used?
  • Is a communication protocol in place? (The how, what, when of communication.)
  • Are there appropriate cyber-security protocols in place?
  • Are supports in place for setting up a home office? (Ergonomics, tech, budget)
  • Are current onboarding processes in place to ensure remote workers are incorporated into the company culture?
  • Is servant leadership encouraged at all levels of the organization?
  • Has the organization developed a meaningful way to talk about progress and performance relevant to specific contexts (colocated or remote)?

Performance Management in the Remote Work Era

Let’s take a moment to focus on that final question. What does performance management look like in a remote context? In our research, 250 plus remote workers reported people desire meaningful work; they want to know it is connected to work done by their co-workers, and also to organizational goals and mission. Therefore, use of data to drive metrics helps employees know:

  • How productive they were;
  • What that productivity means to the team/organization; and
  • How the work they did related to the work others are doing.

Clarity around deliverables and timelines removes ambiguity for all employees. Our research determined remote workers want two-way feedback to happen on an “as needed” basis to identify their successes, potential growth areas, and to provide feedback regarding how they need managers to remove barriers for individual and team success.

However, this does not replace a formal annual discussion around accomplishments, goals, challenges, and contributions. Well-applied metrics, combined with mutually agreed upon goals, and evidence of on-going growth of relevant competencies, can serve as the foundation for effective, respectful performance measurement.

An Expanded Employee Experience

Summing up, remote work is a growing reality that is moving us toward a more open, global, and flexible marketplace. When done well, remote working allows for humans to experience a greater cadence of meaningful experiences both in work and their personal lives. Still, it’s hard to imagine a world where every job becomes remote. While we hope more organizations give thought to opening up their proverbial walls, we don’t want to see good organizations caught in trying to change something that’s just not right for them.

 


 

Roberta Sawatzky, CPHR is a professor at the Okanagan School of Business, consultant, and researcher focusing on remote work. Nathan Sawatzky is a sociologist and remote business leader.

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