Addressing the rising employee demand for remote work options

Remote work can be considered an emerging trend to the extent that a limited but fast-growing percentage of businesses are accommodating the model. Among employees, however, telecommuting options have already become a common expectation.

A recent poll by Philadelphia-based recruitment giant MRINetwork helped put a number on the phenomenon. After asking employers about the topic, the researchers whom the company commissioned to do the study reported that 53 percent said candidates inquire about remote work options “somewhat” to “very” often. The number was even higher among recruiters, who often have more direct knowledge of candidate expectations: 68 percent said they’re seeing interest in telecommuting.

This creates a tricky choice for businesses. They can either leave a major employee expectation unaddressed, or start supporting remote work and assume the logistical challenges involved in doing so. Some high-profile companies such as IBM have opted to go down the former route for simplicity’s sake. Others, meanwhile, are reaping the rewards of embracing telecommuting in the form of increased worker productivity.

The seemingly most balanced answer to whether remote work is worth the hassle comes from a 2015 meta-study by the Association for Psychological Science (APS). After evaluating multiple existing studies into the subject, the authors found that the return provided by telecommuting programs depends foremost on the execution. And more specifically, on how well it’s implemented in the specific context of a business’s requirements.

In other words, a telecommuting program often does have the potential to realize a worthwhile turn under the right circumstances. The APS study found that there are several fundamental requirements to making that happen. The first is establishing formalized policies on telecommuting, the need for which is supported by case study about Adobe that Bloomberg published in April.

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The report focuses on the tech giant’s approach to flexible work programs in general and not telecommuting per se, but the findings are relevant. One of the most valuable insights is that some staffers were until recently hesitant to ask about alternative working arrangements even though the option is readily available.

It’s a problem at other companies as well that often stems from concerns over job security. According to the Family and Work Institute, two out of five employees worry that using the flexible work options their companies offer could jeopardize their jobs. As a result, they either don’t take advantage of them or make their own alternative schedules without informing their managers.

Creating an official company policy to remove any doubt about when employees are qualified for telecommuting solved the issue at Adobe. Plus, a well-defined rule set has operational benefits as well. Establishing an organized framework for telecommuting can help preempt potential scheduling conflicts that may hinder productivity. With that said, ensuring that staffers take advantage of remote work options in the expected manner is only the first step towards realizing the potential business benefits.

Another requirement is giving employees all the tools they need to do their work away from the office. Communications services such as Slack can help remote teams stay coordinated, while Google Drive and other file sharing platforms address the more hands-on aspects of collaboration. Because employee engagement is affected so directly, the HR department can often play a part in helping to drive the adoption of the necessary technologies.

This ties into the third big requirement for remote work programs. Alongside the importance of having the right tools, the APS study stressed the need for businesses to put them in the hands of the right personnel. A simple company-wide blanket policy usually doesn’t cut it. Telecommuting options should be only offered to employees who have been shown to possess the necessary skills to be productive outside an office.

After laying the operational groundwork, a business should continuously track that the telecommuting program meets expectations. The DoD’s Defense Information Systems Agency, for example, goes about the task by combining traditional productivity assessment methods with feedback from remote employees’ managers and other work contacts. Actively keeping an eye on productivity can help you avoid falling into the common traps facing remote teams and realize the returns to be had from giving employees the flexibility they increasingly expect.

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