The idea of working remotely has been more than bubbling on the back burner. It's at boil status, and the ability to work from home well is one of the hottest job skills going. The pot may be about to overflow, and the out-of-office move is about to go mainstream. At least if Harvard researchers have their way.

Harvard Business Review recently wrote an article provocatively titled "Is It Time to Let Employees Work From Anywhere?", and researchers from Harvard Business School and Northeastern's D'Amore-McKim School of Business made their case for working from anywhere (WFA) to become more the norm.

The team analyzed data on WFA case studies, especially an in-depth look at a WFA program started in 2012 among patent examiners at the U.S. Patent & Trade Office (USPTO). Their research, soon to be published in a working paper, found examiners working from anywhere saw their work output increase by 4.4 percent, while quality of work held up, representing up to $1.3 billion of annual added value to the U.S. economy (based on the average amount of economic value generated by each additional patent granted).

The research also showed that in the specific case of working from home (as the WFA location) versus the office, productivity gains were seen in line with other studies. One such study involved a Chinese travel agency that saw productivity increase a whopping 13 percent when call center employees were allowed to work from home.

The Harvard and Northeastern research team also found that WFA examiners chose to work in locations with lower cost of living, effectively equating to a pay increase--one that didn't cost the organization a dime.

Longer tenured employees tended to move to "retirement-friendly" locations like Florida, which, according to the researchers, could encourage these most-valued employees to stay in the workforce longer. 

But what about losing out on that peer-to-peer magic? Enter the most interesting finding of all, the fact that WFA examiners productivity increased more if they were located within 25 miles of other WFA examiners. Why? Because, as the study says, "geographically clustered WFA workers whose job content is similar may learn from each other informally."

In other words, they have the chance to congregate and share knowledge, similar to the way that co-workers informally learn from each other through office interactions.

So, how to make working from anywhere work for everybody? Here are some recommendations:

Remote work must come with true autonomy.

I interviewed employees working from home for one company with a WFA program and found they loved it with one exception -- their boss was "making up" for his discomfort with not having them in the office by micromanaging them from afar, often checking to see if they were indeed working.

That's poisonous behavior. Trust must be at the core of any WFA initiative.

Use a common set of technology tools.

Of course, make sure any remote location has easy, reliable access to the internet. Then, insist on a common set of tech tools to help solve the greatest fear of WFA employees, feeling out of the loop or disconnected. In the USPTO study, examiners using common IT tools (VPN, instant messaging, etc.) saw an additional 3 percent increase in productivity.

Foster WFA outposts.

If you can identify clusters of where WFA employees are living/congregating, feed it. Make the small investment to pay for a lunch or a co-meeting space in that geographic cluster to encourage peer-to-peer connection (and all the good that comes with it).

Keep the newbies in the office, for now.

The Harvard research team's study focused on WFA employees that were already experienced. You need time to mold newer employees before letting them detach (physically) from the mother ship.

Let the type of work inform the viability of WFA.

Not all work lends itself to having employees do that work remotely. It makes more sense for a more experienced workforce with a fairly independent job type. A good dose of judgment is your best guide.

I think it's time for WFA to be much more common. If you're a leader and/or an employee, be brave and experiment with it -- or at least ask for the opportunity to try.

Published on: Aug 22, 2019
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