“Some massively successful companies are thriving with large numbers of remote employees, to date they are still the outliers”
With some sports leagues playing games in front of empty stadiums, and the majority of major sports suspending games indefinitely, the disruptiveness of coronavirus is on full display and no part of our lives is unaffected, writes Shahar Erez, CEO, freelancer management platform Stoke. We are still at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak and the world is beset with a growing list of “no travel” policies (both from companies and government entities) and growing portions of the world population are under quarantine or in social isolation. It’s a little difficult to find a business positive aspect to the entire situation, but one thing that will change is the attitude towards remote work.
In recent years, as major corporations have adopted cloud computing, mobile devices and productivity applications, we have also seen some companies becoming open to enable some remote work, and others that are now remote-first companies with no offices at all. Some really big names have adopted the remote-first mindset including, Automattic (WordPress), Invision, Elastic, HashiCorp and many more.
While some massively successful companies are thriving with large numbers of remote employees, to date they are still the outliers.
The great majority of corporations are not “there” yet.
Even over the past year as I’ve been meeting companies, talking about the benefits of freelancers and enabling remote working, I heard plenty of “we are different”, “it’s not in our DNA”, “we have a culture of seeing the people” and the likes. Though every indication showed that these companies would have benefited from adopting remote work, some companies simply prefer to keep doing business the way they are used to. A VC partner even told me “it’ll never happen. People will keep showing up at their office every day”.
The responses illustrate that the key factors preventing successful work from home programs were not necessarily logistical, but rather an issue of attitude. Many of these companies value the “time in the office” metric above all, and the idea of introducing remote workers undermines the company ethos so they won’t even consider the option. The entire structure is built around being in the office, working at your desk, in person meetings with managers, and approval for decisions. The company exists around the office hierarchy and without the office, the workflow is heavily disrupted.
Companies like Automattic have eschewed the traditional in office atmosphere to enable a more dynamic workforce. They invested time in creating clear processes for communication and remote management and are able to coordinate a 400+ person staff from 43 countries largely without the use of email. The company relies on slack networks and its own internal P2 system, which functions as an internal blog system to keep everyone on track, and while this system will likely be a difficult feat for most companies to recreate, Automattic’s success serves as a case study to prove the viability of remote work. It would definitely require investment to arrange and every company would need to figure out what works best for itself, but once the logistics are set up, it’s very doable.
The other major factor in running a remote business model is trust. Companies like Automattic trust their employees to get the job done without a manager looming in the background. As long as employees are delivering, the company cares little for exactly what hours are being logged, and where employees are doing it from. This is even evidenced in Automattic’s vacation policy (no vacation day limit). The company trusts its employees to know what they need and not take advantage of the perk. The belief that it could work propelled these companies to try something different, against conventional wisdom, and it has paid dividends, while the exact opposite is true of other companies.
The trend of moving towards remote work has been going on for nearly a decade and the benefits have been well documented to show major increases in productivity, employee performance, employee retention, and of course the bottom line. According to a report about employee productivity:
- Remote employees work an additional 1.4 more days per month than in-office employees, which is nearly 17 additional workdays a year.
- Remote employees take longer breaks on average than office employees (22 minutes versus 18 minutes, respectively), but they work an additional 10 minutes a day.
- Office workers are unproductive for an average 37 minutes a day, not including lunch or breaks, whereas remote employees are unproductive for only 27 minutes.
- 15% of remote workers said their boss distracted them from work, which is less than the 22% of office-based employees who said the same thing.
The data from various studies suggests that companies largely benefit from enabling a remote workforce, yet many have been very hesitant to allow it, even in the face of data, because they don’t think it can work for them.
One look at the stock market and indexes will tell you everything you need to know about how disruptive Covid-19 has already been to business, but the silver lining is that it is forcing every company to examine its remote working capability. Coronavirus is brute-force testing traditional companies’ tenacity and ability to adapt quickly to a new, unrecognizable reality. Of course, the unprecedented nature of the situation has caught companies unprepared, so many are in various degrees of flux and have been slower to adapt. However, as they reorganize they may find the outlook isn’t as grim as it appears.
The pandemic we’re experiencing is frightening and largely unprecedented, but necessity is the mother of invention. Many of these companies may never have voluntarily created a work-from-home pilot program to test the theories for themselves, but the situation is not giving anyone a choice and so we must all adapt to survive. If the traditional statistics hold, once the logistical barriers of getting everyone set up to work from home are overcome, and remote workflows are established, companies could very well start seeing business balance out and start to prosper. If companies can see steady business (and potentially even improvement) under the less than ideal circumstances we are dealing with today, then when it’s all over and business is back to normal, we may find many companies re-examine their attitudes towards remote work.