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Remote working - past, present or future?

By Tom Dempster | March 2019

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There was a time when remote working was labelled a concept of the future. An ambitious idea, but one that required significant technological advances before it could be adopted in the mainstream.

Findings from a recent study show that 70% of full-time employees now work away from their company’s office at least once a week. Is remote working still just a potential idea for the future, or is it actually the preferred method of the present?

What is remote working?

Before we look in detail, let’s define what remote working actually is. In recent decades, remote working has been given various monikers - telecommuting, working from home or alternative working to name just three (the Harvard Business Review published this article in 1998, outlining the potential benefits and downsides of alternative working).

Working from home is not a totally new concept. Prior to the introduction of factory systems and production processes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, it was common for peasants to live in workhouses, where a family’s home life would intertwine with work as craft makers, dress weavers or several other trades.

The world of work changed immeasurably through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with factories, and subsequently offices, creating a designated central hub for workers away from their homes. Research now supports the idea that another cultural shift is taking place, with the traditional office setup being usurped by the increasing popularity of remote jobs.

If you’re reading this article, we think there is a good chance you have worked remotely at some point in your career, too - although probably not as a seventeenth century craft maker.

Remote working statistics

  • As of 2017, it was estimated that 3.9 million U.S. employees work from home at least half of the time - an increase of 115% since 2005. (FlexJobs)
  • 82% of respondents in a 2014 survey reported that telecommuting reduced their stress. 80% said remote working improved morale. (PGi)
  • 76% of female tech professionals believe businesses offering remote work are more likely to retain top talent. (HuffPost)
  • Employees who work remotely at least once a month are 24% more likely to feel happy and productive in their work compared to those who don’t work remotely. (Owl Labs)
  • In a two year study of China’s largest travel agency, Ctrip, workers who moved from offices to part-time or full-time remote setups showed a 13% increase in performance. (Stanford Business)
  • In the United States, the environmental and community impact from the current telecommuting population of 3.9 million is estimated to save $1.5 billion annually. (FlexJobs)

What are the benefits of remote working?

There are numerous upsides for employees and employers who embrace the philosophy of remote working.

For employees:

Improved work-life balance

The flexibility afforded to remote employees means they are able to manage their time in a way that suits them. Jake Sheridan, SEO Specialist at Pandable, says:

“For me, remote work means a healthier work-life balance. If you need to schedule something exciting like an MOT, wait in for a delivery or just take the dogs for a walk, you aren't confined by time. What really works for me is it lets you work when you’re most productive. If you are an early riser, remote work affords you a few hours of potential productive bliss (and a relaxed coffee), whilst most people are rushing around commuting. I know which I'd rather be doing.”

Time saving

For home-based workers, there is no time spent waiting for trains or sitting in traffic. The reduction in commuting time allows them to spend more time with friends and family, with obvious positive impacts (well, unless you think spending more time with certain family members isn’t necessarily a good thing).

No cost of commuting

Remote employees save money, either on petrol costs or using public transport - and the average annual income of remote workers in a 2017 FlexJobs survey was $4,000 higher than their non-remote counterparts.

Work from anywhere

Location flexibility is one of the main draws of remote working. The rise of the ‘digital nomad’ means fully remote workers are able to perform their duties with just an Internet connection - although the responsibility of meeting deadlines and being available regularly still exists.

For employers:

Increased productivity

In a 2016 survey, 91% of remote workers reported that they felt more productive working from home than when they were in an office. There are several studies which have shown the productivity benefits for employers, with fewer distractions and lower noise often cited as the main reasons.

Lower costs

Fully remote businesses have no office space to maintain, reducing overheads and allowing them to invest elsewhere in the business.

Access to a bigger selection of workers

Businesses with a fully remote workforce have access to a wider talent pool, attracting employees from all corners of the globe. Liv Taylor-Weale, Pandable’s Operations Director, explains:

“In order to deliver the absolute best service to our clients, we knew we needed the best talent full stop, not just the best talent in London or Brighton. Remote working has opened these doors and enabled us to recruit a world class team.”

Reduced employee turnover

Research shows that employee retention is improved in organisations with a part or full remote working policy. In 2017, a prominent study by Stanford Business focused on a large Chinese company found that resignations dropped by half when employees were allowed to work from home.

What are the challenges of remote working?

Although there are obvious benefits, there are also some drawbacks of remote working, which pose some challenges for organisations.

For employees:

Knowing when to switch off

Working in a home environment can actually have a negative impact on work-life balance, as remote employees may find it difficult to “leave the office” if their workplace is in their home.

Time management

Remote working requires self-discipline at both ends of the scale. Although studies have shown that some remote employees ‘over-work’ to compensate for their lack of physical presence in an office environment, it remains a delicate balancing act.

Health impacts

In a traditional office, an employee may have a reason (or create one...) to walk around during the work day and stay active - a remote worker may be less physically active than an office-based colleague. Research from Cornell University also indicates that mental health can be adversely affected due to professional and personal isolation.

For employers:

Team communication

In an office environment, chains of command and expectations are relatively clear - and it is easy to call a departmental meeting to review in the event of any problems. In a remote team, if not managed as a top priority, communication may be more infrequent and less effective.

Maintaining productivity

Despite surveys to the contrary, it is natural for management to occasionally wonder if their remote employees are focusing their entire efforts on their day-to-day work. The distance may also make it more difficult to work collaboratively.

Creating a unified company culture

With a fully remote team, employees may be stationed across different continents and multiple time zones - and it simply isn’t as easy to arrange drinks after work on a Friday if a nine-hour flight separates you from your colleagues.

How does the remote working philosophy shape Pandable?

At Pandable, we are a fully remote team, although we prefer to use the term ‘distributed’ to minimise any potential feeling of isolation. Whilst we reap all the benefits of remote working, we also need to mitigate every challenge to keep ourselves - and ultimately, our clients - happy.

We’re lucky to be working in an era with a variety of apps at our disposal. With so many messaging, productivity and project management tools available, it could be tempting to try all of them - but it is better to stick to the ones you need (that won’t stop us adding ideas to #the-tool-shed channel on our company Slack, though...).

So which tools are the chosen ones at Pandable?

Meetings, strategy & brainstorming sessions

To aid with communication across our business, we use Zoom as our video conferencing tool, setting the agenda for the week ahead and allowing team members to raise any questions or suggestions. Our video calls emphasise the importance of teamwork and co-operation on collaborative projects - and helps to foster a positive and enthusiastic culture around the work we do.

Project management

We utilise Asana for task planning, which provides all team members with an interactive view of how their role and tasks play a part in the bigger Pandable picture, whilst also providing a simple way to visualise and manage deadlines to plan work accordingly.

Day-to-day communication

Like many remote organisations, we use Slack as the medium for everyday communication. This is where we can ask simple questions, share useful articles and insights, debate the important topics of the day (recent conversation threads include ‘do the words ‘but’ and ‘put’ rhyme?’, ‘how do UK and US donuts differ in price, taste and quality?’ and ‘what is the optimum ripeness to consume a banana?’), and of course, to post our favourite GIFs.

Slack covers a lot of bases for a remote company like Pandable. Discussion amongst team members helps us provide innovative ways to produce content or solve client issues. Sharing informative articles helps to maintain knowledge and expertise across the team. And whilst inane conversation topics may seem just that - inane - the effect is actually similar to the discussions which take place in almost every office around the world. Talking about things outside of the spectrum of work help us understand our colleagues and make the overall work experience more enjoyable; if employees are happier at work, they tend to do a better job.

Mental health

Finally, there is one additional app we offer to all employees who work at Pandable. As part of our perks and benefits, we offer every employee access to Headspace, a mindfulness app which helps with everything from stress to sleep issues. Although we see the benefits of remote work for our employees, we want to help them develop both inside and outside the workplace.

Remote working is not the future - it’s the present

There are so many facets to any successful business, and there are perhaps additional things to consider when your operation is a fully remote one. The benefits here at Pandable far outweigh any downsides. By having employees dotted in different places around the globe with a mix of countries and cultures, we believe we are better placed to help our clients. Combined with the right mix of powerful technology, an engaged workforce and a healthy company culture, we believe remote working shouldn’t be thought of as a distant concept of the future - it’s already here.

Sources

CNBC, “70% of people globally work remotely at least once a week, study says”, 30 May, 2018.

Harvard Business Review, “The Alternative Workplace: Changing Where and How People Work”, May-June 1998.

FlexJobs, “The 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Workforce”, 2017.

PGi, “State of Telecommuting | 2014 Survey Reveals New Trends in Remote Work”, 3 March, 2014.

Huffington Post, “Girl Power: How Remote Work Can Help Shrink Tech’s Gender Gap”, 1 August, 2017.

Owl Labs, “2018 Global State of Remote Work”, 2018.

Stanford Business, “Why Working From Home Is a “Future-looking Technology””, 22 June, 2017.

ILR School, “Examining Current Trends and Organizational Practices”, 2012.

Forbes, “Promoting Employee Happiness Benefits Everyone”, 13 December, 2017.