Productivity at a Distance: The Future of Remote Work

A male employee working from home answers a phone call and discusses the future of remote work.

The outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent need for social distancing has resulted in the largest real-time remote working experiment in history. It's natural, then, that the concept of working at home is currently under the microscope,

Many companies have had at least a portion of their employees work from home for years. According to data from Global Workplace Analytics, working away from the office has grown 173 percent since 2005.

But in light of the pandemic, companies needed to quickly transition the majority of their workers to virtual teams in order to protect them. A recent Gallup poll showed that 62 percent of employed Americans said they worked from home during the crisis, a number that doubled since mid-March.

Usually, company transitions of this magnitude have a much longer lead time. According to remote work strategist Laurel Farrer, it typically takes six to 12 weeks for a smooth transition from on-site to remote work. While companies didn’t have that luxury during the COVID-19 outbreak, that doesn’t mean they can’t reap the benefits that remote work can offer. A closer look at the opportunities and challenges of remote work could help businesses make this new normal of work a productive one.

The Pros and Cons of Remote Work

Advantages for Employers

Remote working can provide some unique advantages for companies to expand their workforce and add savings directly to the bottom line.

Such advantages include:

  • A global talent pool which allows employers to build teams with more diversity and additional skillsets from any location around the world.
  • Increased cost savings. Global Workplace Analytics estimates a typical employer could save an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year as a result of increased productivity and reductions in real estate costs, absenteeism and turnover.
  • Increased productivity. In research by the International Workplace Group, 85 percent of businesses confirmed that productivity increased in their company because of greater flexibility in work arrangements.

Challenges for Employers

Not having teams physically in the same location can present some challenges in disseminating information and building teams, however, as well.

Challenges might come in the form of:

  • Communication and collaboration can become more complex, especially if remote workers span different time zones. Technology can remove a great deal of these barriers, but employee training is necessary to make sure everyone is up to speed.
  • Maintaining a sense of teamwork and culture. Since opportunities to meet in the break room are nonexistent, management must take an active role in fostering relationships among team members in a virtual environment. Promoting events such as virtual coffee breaks can provide team members an opportunity to chat via video call.
  • Managing employees long-distance. In a remote work environment, managers have to be more creative about using technology, including one-on-one video chats, to not only connect with employees but also to identify roadblocks to productivity and ensure that employees are engaged.

Advantages for Employees

Employees who have worked remotely are some of its biggest proponents. According to a Buffer 2020 survey, 98 percent of respondents indicated that they would like to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their careers.

Why the satisfaction with working from home?

  • Increased flexibility. Employees can structure their day to achieve their personal goals of family time or exercise while still delivering on business objectives.
  • Better quality of life. No commute means less stress and less expense. Flexjobs estimates remote workers can save an average of $4,000 per year by working remotely.
  • Staying well. Beyond the age of COVID-19, working from home means less exposure to the common cold or other communicable illnesses.

Challenges for Employees

In addition to the positives, the Buffer survey also outlined some of the biggest struggles employees face when working from home:

  • collaboration and/or communication
  • loneliness
  • unplugging after work

All teams struggle at times with collaboration and communication and working in different locations can present additional challenges. Managers can help alleviate some of these drawbacks by setting up regular team and individual video chats and encouraging employees to use technology to interact socially. It’s also important to respect employee work hours, so they have an opportunity to decompress.

Closing the Preparedness Gap for Remote Work

Capitalizing on the opportunities that remote work can provide requires planning. Company leadership should consider these “make or break” hot spots to make their remote work programs more effective and sustainable: policy, technology, data security and employee engagement.

Get Employees on the Same Page with a Consistent Policy

A remote work policy can help employees by outlining the processes and tools they need to do their jobs. Develop a policy that includes objectives, how and when to use technology, communication frequency and answers to employees’ most pressing questions.

Companies have been slow to put remote work norms in writing. A 2018 Upwork study showed that while the majority of companies embrace remote teams, 57 percent lacked a remote work policy. The possibility that remote work will become an increasing part of the business landscape (even after COVID-19 wanes) should move constructing a remote policy up in the priority list.

Give Employees the Technology They Need to Get the Job Done

Managing a successful remote team is not as simple as just having a laptop, webcam and an Internet connection. The first step is to assess what technology your employees have available as well as their broadband capabilities.

Communication, collaboration and project management tools are the business essentials of remote work. Start with basics such as Remote Desktop to remotely access files from a work PC, collaboration tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams and videoconferencing mainstays such as Zoom, GoToMeeting or Skype. Project management platforms such as Basecamp or Trello can help keep project progress visible to all participants.

The key to success is to not only select technology tools but to provide structure about how, when and why each tool should be used.

Instill Vigilance about Data Security

As more employees work from home, vigilance about protecting assets with good cybersecurity hygiene should increase. Start by ensuring each worker has up-to-date antivirus software. Next, provide a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which creates an encrypted connection for remote workers to send and receive data.

Two other tools that companies can use to protect data are password managers, which employees can use to manage login information, and two-factor authentication, which requires the user to provide two types of information in order to gain access to information.

Continued training on data security should also be a priority, including helping employees to identify phishing emails and cautioning about clicking on email links which could install malware.

Keep Employees Engaged

In 50 years of research, Gallup has shown than employees who are engaged with their companies produce better business outcomes than other employees. That fact holds true whether employees work in-office or remotely. Managers can help get remote teams on board right from the start by outlining work objectives and timelines clearly, as well as monitoring progress based on results rather than strictly on hours.

Regular training for employees on technology tools and for managers on leading virtual teams provides a good foundation for deepening employee engagement.

To build teams, managers should use technology to connect often with employees, identify any potential roadblocks and help maintain company culture by providing digital ways to socialize.

The Future of Remote Work

Will remote work continue to be the norm after the COVID-19 outbreak abates? While no one has a crystal ball, remote work can provide opportunities for both employers and employees—with proper planning and efforts to overcome any obstacles.

Employees appear up to the challenge. A Glassdoor survey indicated that 67 percent of employees said they would support the decision by their employer to mandate employees to work from home indefinitely due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

And in turn, as employers experience cost savings and an increase in productivity, more of them may consider a larger shift to remote work for their teams.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Fifth Third Bank, National Association, and are solely the opinions of the author. This article is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute the rendering of legal, accounting, or other professional services by Fifth Third Bank, National Association, or any of their subsidiaries or affiliates, and are provided without any warranty whatsoever. Deposit and credit products provided by Fifth Third Bank, Member FDIC.