By Vik Patel, CEO of Future Hosting.
In the last few years, remote work has become increasingly popular with both employers and employees. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 3.7 million U.S. employees work remotely at least half of the time.
In the tech space, there are many remote-work success stories. Basecamp, formerly 37Signals, built a successful software-as-a-service business with remote workers. The founders even wrote a book about the advantages of remote work. Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com and founded by WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg, is a billion-dollar business.
But remote work stories don't always have a happy ending. Yahoo famously stopped its remote work program when Marissa Meyer took over as CEO. IBM, once a strong supporter of remote work, is now less enthusiastic. That doesn't mean remote work is not a viable option, just that businesses have to consciously embrace the changes that accompany it. It's easier for new companies to cultivate the culture and management techniques that make remote work a possibility, but established companies that mindfully transition to a remote work culture can be just as successful.
Embracing remote work isn't right for all businesses, but there are well-established benefits for both the business and its employees: Location-independent hiring gives businesses access to a global talent pool, lower demand for office space can bring significant savings, remote work makes it necessary to hire self-motivated employees and those employees waste less time commuting.
Happy employees can only benefit a business. So how can businesses successfully transition to a remote working ethos without putting productivity and culture at risk?
Communicate As Much As Possible
Remote work is possible because communications technology makes it possible. Tools like Slack, Google Hangouts and Trello allow team members to communicate, coordinate and collaborate no matter where they are in the world. Technology is a necessary condition for remote work, but it isn't sufficient.
Without communication policies and management guidance, it's easy for remote workers to become isolated from the company. I advise companies embarking on a remote-work strategy to enforce a policy of regular communications, with both formal team and one-on-one meetings as well as informal, online co-worker gatherings.
Focus on Productivity, Not Time-Worked
The old-fashioned management view that time in the office is equivalent to time worked is an anachronism in a remote world. Managers of creative professionals and technical staff like developers should focus on employee productivity and not on the amount of time they spend at their desks.
Clearly, that approach doesn't work for all employees: Customer support staff need to be available at specific times, for example. But where flexibility is possible, productivity -- not time spent in front of a screen -- should be the measure of a good worker.
Get Serious About Company Culture
If you look at companies that have successfully implemented remote-work programs, you'll see that they take culture seriously. Remote work requires a different approach to employee management, and that approach has to be mindfully cultivated by the company leadership.
Culture comes about through the day-to-day interactions, but one of the best ways to reinforce and foreground a culture is with content. Internal content such as employee handbooks and guidelines should focus on the expectations a company has for its remote employees as well as on creating an environment of respect for the autonomy of those employees. Great content can help increase engagement, loyalty and a sense of mission even though employees and managers may rarely meet in person.
In this article, I've stressed the benefits of remote work, but there's no denying that some employees aren't capable of doing their best work without close supervision. For companies that are serious about remote work, it's better to spot unsuitable employees early. Before hiring an employee, consider giving them a trial with some freelance projects. A substantial freelance project will give a prospective employee the opportunity to demonstrate their conscientiousness.
In the future, it's likely that many of the most able employees in some fields will expect flexibility where remote work is concerned. Businesses that are reluctant to experiment with different ways of working may find hiring the best more of a challenge than companies that are prepared to let employees work remotely.
Vik Patel is a prolific tech entrepreneur with a passion for all things cloud and the CEO of Detroit-based Future Hosting.