Remote Work: Fleeting Fad or Enduring Evolution?

The late 90s and early 2000s brought an armada of trends we’d like to just as soon forget—frosted tips in the hair, ultra-baggy jeans, Furby, walkmans. Let’s not continue. However, it also introduced cell phones, social media, and other “trends” that never phased out.

I distinctly remember my father complaining about our cellphone bill, insisting that he wouldn’t pay for texting because it was “just a fad.” Who would take the time to type out a message when calling was so much easier?

Fast forward 10-15 years, and you’ve probably received a text in the time it’s taken to read this introduction. Some trends permanently transform the way we live and work.

As an HR professional, you’ve probably heard of remote and flexible work arrangements and their numerous benefits:

If it seems to you like everyone and their cousin is adopting this modern system, you’d be right. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 40% more of employers in the U.S. offer flexible or remote work options today than they did five years ago.

Sounds like a train your company needs to hop on, right? Or is this a fad that’s better left alone, like velour sweat suits?

The answer: It depends.

The remote workplace system isn’t the right solution for every company, just like those 90s halter tops didn’t work for everybody (sorry, but it’s true). It’s likely that for some, the movement toward remote work will be nothing but a fleeting fad. For others, it could be an enduring evolution for the better.

But how can you tell what flexible workplace options might do for your own organization?

When Remote Work Might Work

The efficacy of remote work arrangements depends a lot on the type of work to be accomplished and the experience and personality of each employee.

First, when a job is more or less the same thing day-in and day-out, a remote work system could increase productivity among employees. Stanford University conducted a study among call center employees at a Chinese travel company called Ctrip. For nine months, half of the employees (who volunteered themselves) were allowed to work from home.

At the end of the trial period, they found a 13% increase in productivity and a 50% decrease in turnover within the group that worked from home. Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at the university, suggests “the more robotic the work, the greater the benefits [of remote work].”

While this study reflects the benefits for a call center, that doesn’t mean a flexible workplace policy can’t also benefit employees in knowledge or creative positions. It just takes the right kind of person.

Alex Turnbull of Groove HQ, where the entire workforce is remote, has learned over the years that not everyone is cut out for such a self-starter work environment. He writes, “Successfully working from home is a skill, just like programming, designing or writing. It takes time and commitment to develop that skill, and the traditional office culture doesn’t give us any reason to do that.”

If you are confident that your team is made up of reliable, experienced, and independent workers, then maybe a remote solution is for you.

When Remote Work Might Not Work

The most common argument against flexible workplace policies is the decrease in “water cooler” talk that happens every day amongst team members. While a five-minute discussion about the big game last night might not seem productive in the strictest sense, it can strengthen bonds between employees and provide necessary, natural distractions from the workflow.

Collaborative problem solving often happens side-by-side with casual jokes and conversations. In fact, informal communication is linked to increased productivity within a group.

While not impossible, it’s difficult to recreate that same kind of chit-chat when everyone is separated by a computer screen and a few (hundred) miles.

As proof that remote work isn’t best for every organization, IBM recently re-centered its marketing department within the U.S., requiring all employees who were working remotely to either commute to one of the named office locations or find a new job. Their hope is to increase innovation and creativity—two things that studies suggest happen most often face-to-face.

If your company’s lifeblood is this type of spontaneous, organic collaboration between employees, then a full exodus to remote work might not be the best idea.

You’ll Never Know if You Don’t Try

Still wondering if taking the plunge is right for your organization? There could be a compromise to keep everyone happy.

First of all, there’s no need to make sweeping changes right away, even if you’d like to shift to more flexible workplace options. Try testing with a select group of employees or for a specific period of time.

You can also experiment with allowing employees to work a couple days a week from home. Actually, Nicholas Bloom, the professor involved with the Stanford study, insists “a good rule of thumb is to let employees have one to two days a week at home. It’s hugely beneficial to their well-being, helps you attract talent, and lowers attrition.”

Finally, you should define what it means for an employee to be successful and productive:

To determine these answers, you’ll need to look beyond simple numbers such as phone calls completed or forms submitted. You will probably need a combination of time tracking, performance management, and more that allows you to measure abstract data such as employee satisfaction.

Whatever decision you reach, be sure you’re getting all the information you need first. You might not be able to predict the future of fads, but with a thorough plan and smart systems in place, you’ll be able to move forward confidently. No regrets—unlike those of us who owned a Furby.