Sara Sutton Fell: Remote Workplace Futures Today


Sara Sutton Fell is a future of work expert and was named a Young Global Leader by World Economic Forum for her work in the employment and technology fields. She believes that a modern workplace should address the needs of today’s workforce, and that utilizing workplace technology to support telecommuting and flexible work will achieve macro and micro benefits for both employees and employers.

Sutton Fell is the CEO/Founder of FlexJobs, which specializes in telecommuting and flexible job listings,as well as two partner sites, and 1 Million for Work Flexibility. Having also co-founded an entry-level employment service in 1995 (JobDirect, later sold to Korn|Ferry International in 2000), she has long been passionate about helping people find jobs that make their lives better.

Featured by CNN, BusinessWeek, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Fortune, Fast Company and many other media outlets as an expert in the online employment market, she was also named a Game Changer by Workforce Management Magazine. Sutton Fell spoke to Hub Culture in Davos, Switzerland on what work really means today:

Here are her insights into remote work, the future of work and the online job marketplace.

Undisputedly, technology has changed how the world works, but how has it changed the dynamic of the workplace itself?
Just as technology has changed the way we live our daily lives, it has also changed the way in which people work every day. The workplace is becoming more of a mindset than a location because technology has made it much more seamless for people to work from anywhere with high-speed Internet access. Whether checking emails on a smartphone, working from the commuter train on an iPad or laptop, or working from a home computer, these activities are considered standard operating procedure by many.

Interestingly though, many people don’t realize that all of these are a version of remote working or telecommuting. So while the dynamics of the workplace have changed, the formal policies around how people work still largely haven’t evolved to address the level of remote working people are already doing—and they need to.

What are the top three ways HR professionals be making better use of the technologies now available?
When it comes to HR, technology is making it much easier to keep teams and companies connected, regardless of location. Three areas that HR could make even better use of, when it comes to technology, would be:

  • Collaboration: Tools like message boards and IM/chat are making it easier for individuals and teams to connect, form relationships, and get work done—but they’re still under-utilized at many companies.
  • Remote workforces: Technology makes it so much easier to hire people to work remotely, and by removing local geographic restrictions from hiring criteria HR is empowered to access a much more broad and deep candidate pool. So, rather than settling on a candidate just because they’re geographically close to the office, you can hire the best person for the job anywhere.  Additionally, by hiring remote workers, you don’t have to spend money and resource relocating the best professionals.
  • Records management: So much of the paperwork HR departments still deal with on a daily basis can be handled online, which improves efficiency and reduces the need for costly, and less secure, paper file management systems.


How can employers maintain that ‘human connection’ with an increasingly flexible and often remote workforce?
One of the things we’re always considering at FlexJobs is how we can strengthen and maintain our company culture, encourage friendly relationships to grow among teams, and engage with one another on a human level. One of the biggest things employers must do is encourage open, proactive communication.

Managers should be trained to not only pay attention to work-related things, but to acknowledge in a positive way that we all have lives outside of work too. This involves showing an appropriate level of interest as you would around the water cooler or running into a colleague in the hallway—such as asking how someone’s weekend was, following up on events they’ve mentioned they were attending, sharing each other’s favorite movies and music, etc.

As a rule, I try to take time for casual chit-chat in all regular meetings before diving into the work agenda. It’s so tempting to get right down to business when talking with employees over the phone or on a video conference, but the beginnings of those interactions are a great time to connect with one another on a human level.

What do you view as the area of greatest potential/challenge facing HR professionals now, and within the next three years?
The biggest area of potential AND challenge facing HR right now, as well as in the near future, is the formal adoption of flexible work arrangements. Too many companies still do this very casually. Eighty per cent of companies claim to have flexible work programs, but only three per cent of these companies offering flexible work programs report even attempting to track the ROI of those programs. This is shocking to me as a dismal oversight, but it represents the inaccurate and antiquated—but frustratingly persistent—belief that flexible work is more of a perk to employees than a business strategy with very real benefits to employers.  Moreover, with a lack of data to show just how much work flexibility can benefit the company’s business objectives and bottom line, the attitude towards flexible work throughout the company simply stays casual and offhanded. So a casual, flexible work program can run into all sorts of pitfalls because there’s a lack of oversight, transparency, and consistency.

The key with flexible and remote work is to implement programs in a thoughtful, business-oriented way. HR professionals need to be the driving force behind creating formalized flexible work programs that allow employees to have more control over when, where, and how they work—but that are also tied to the company’s overarching business goals and to the bottom line. There are several things HR can play a large role in when it comes to creating a successful flexible work program, such as formal policy creation, management training, communication norms, tools and resources, and team building.

Given the challenges within the employment market, how has technology actually empowered the potential employee?
Remote work, flexible schedules, freelance work: all of these options are growing because of technology. Employees now have much more access to be productive than ever before, from any with high-speed Internet, and at what times of the day they work best; these shifts will ultimately will allow employees to reduce conflict between their professional and personal work lives.

Technological advancements also allow employees to look beyond their current geographic area to find work in almost any career field, as well as allowing employees to find and apply to different job opportunities much more easily—both of which are vastly different than a couple of decades ago.

Employees are much more empowered with their access to the job market, and there’s much more transparency around which companies are good to work for.  What does all of this mean for HR? Talent acquisition, company culture, work flexibility policies, and retention will need much more attention.

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