Technology giant IBM began offering telework to its employees in the 1980s, to the point where eventually 40 percent of its workforce was entirely remote by 2009. IBM’s initial remote work rationale had to do with saving on real estate costs; as Quartz writes, the company reduced its office space by 78 million square feet over the years, saving about $100 million per year.
Other companies have followed IBM’s lead in the decades since. Today, about 20 percent of employees in the U.S. work remotely full time, according to Gallup.
Now, however, the pendulum is swinging back the other way, as emerging workplace trends around collaboration and facetime have some companies rethinking the remote work practice. Some managers also find it difficult to truly collaborate when people aren’t in the office, even as new technology has made remote communication more accessible than ever.
Best Buy, Yahoo, Bank of America and Aetna are just a few firms that have pulled back on remote work recently, in the hope that creating a more unified co-located workforce will boost productivity and performance. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy, especially those who’ve worked remotely for a long time and have grown accustomed to the benefit. Many are having difficulty transitioning back into formal office life.
Here’s how managers can evaluate if they should pull back on remote work and, if they do, how they can transition workers back into the office.
1. Consider the importance of remote work.
For certain types of work, companies are realizing that they’re losing the benefits of people working together, collaborating and being creative in the process, said Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director and global practice leader at Willis Towers Watson, a research and advisory firm headquartered in London. However, he worries that a knee-jerk reaction of having all workers return to the office misses the point that remote work is still an effective method for some. “With anything HR related, if you take a one-size-fits-all solution, you’re bound to get it wrong for a good percentage of the population,” he said.
Working remotely is a huge value proposition for employees. “This is as important as compensation and pensions and health care. This isn’t kind of a throwaway thing,” Jesuthasan said. Also, some workers likely signed on to work at the company under the impression that they could work from home. Removing the benefit could force them to look for work elsewhere.
2. Measure effectiveness before making a decision.
“I feel like the current trend to bring people back needs to be more thoughtful,” said Jing Zhou, Houston Endowment professor of management and psychology at Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. When companies began to allow remote work, a lot of them didn’t have data to show it would help the business. Now, to remove the benefit, employees will need objective evidence of in-office effectiveness to convince them that this is a good thing.
Business leaders should first identify what measures will gauge success, such as productivity and creativity, compare remote and in-office workers, and make a decision, Zhou said. Willis Towers Watson’s Jesuthasan added that it would help to segment out different roles. This will help leaders understand the differences in work their people do to see where remote work is most and least critical.
Once that decision is made, the change should strengthen the company’s competitive advantage and improve customer service, Zhou said. Explain that to workers upon announcement of change. “This information should align employees’ interest with companies’,” she said.
3. Create the right space.
If employers are returning workers to the office in an effort to improve collaboration and increase face-to-face interactions, they need to follow through on that, said Georgia Collins, co-leader of the workplace strategy practice in the Americas at CBRE Group Inc., a commercial real estate company headquartered in Los Angeles.
“Historically, the office environments we’ve built have not been conducive to the kind of work we’re asking people to do,” she said. If wanting people to engage with colleagues and share ideas, then there should be spaces that promote those behaviors. “The environment kind of needs to mirror the ask that we’re making of people,” Collins said.
The office should cater to employee needs, especially when it comes to having both collaborative and private spaces, as well as the necessary technology for employees to perform. “There’s almost nothing worse than being asked to come to the office and having the office fall short of meeting the basic needs of getting work done,” Collins said.
Companies will also have to work to facilitate face-to-face interaction. “I think the desire that organizations have to have their people be better connected if they come to the office won’t just happen,” she said. One benefit of being in the office is networking, particularly with leadership, but employees need help with this. Thus, leadership should be mindful of how to help people get to know each other beyond their business unit, such as through office events.
Still, some work will have to get done virtually, so business leaders need to keep this in mind, Collins said. Many large organizations have multiple locations, meaning time differences will make for some early-morning or late-night calls. “There’s still an element of virtual, even when there are more critical masses of people together,” she said. Even if removing remote working, how people connect virtually will remain important.
4. Continue to allow time for flexibility.
Flexibility at work and working remotely can sometimes become synonymous; for Collins, flexibility is about trust and not necessarily working from home full time. While employees can come to the office a majority of the time, managers can still allow employees some ability to make a choice to stay home every now and then.
Also, employees will be more engaged if they can occasionally work remotely. Gallup’s 2016 “State of the American Workplace” report found that employees are most engaged when spending between 60 and 80 percent of their time — three to four days — offsite. The fully remote workers are about as disengaged as workers who never work from home, making some work at home beneficial for companies.
Willis Towers Watson’s Jesuthasan said his company’s research constantly finds that flexibility is important to workers. If employees need to handle something at home, they should have the freedom to do so, he said. “If you’re eliminating one aspect of flexibility, how is your overall talent strategy still promoting flexibility?”
Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.