Telecommuters Aren’t Going Extinct, They’re Evolving

Telecommuters Aren’t Going Extinct, They’re Evolving
Nicole Dion

To whom it may concern at Bloomberg (JK this is for Rebecca Greenfield, author of this article):

I just finished reading your recent Bloomberg piece, “The Rise and Fall of Working From Home,” and I have a tiny bone to pick with you. In fact, we’ll call it a fossil.

First, you make the bold declaration that “The permanent telecommuter is going extinct,” and yet, your only evidence is from the anecdotes of two companies. And I’m not just questioning your premise because I’m an alleged dinosaur failing to see the death of my own species (yes, full disclosure, I work for a 100 percent virtual company — which has been staffed with exclusively remote employees for eight years, with no plans to ever change that structure).

Nope, in fact, just doing some cursory research on the topic suggests the following:

  • According to this 2017 story in Forbes, author Laura Shin writes, “Such opportunities [telecommuting] seem to be increasing — the percentage of workers doing all or some of their work at home increased from 19 percent in 2003 to 24 percent in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.” She also quotes Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs, in the story, which subsequently released the 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce report. This report found that the number of people telecommuting in the United States increased 115 percent between 2005 and 2015. Part of that is attributed to developments in technology, but FlexJobs also credits workers themselves for pushing the trend. “Across every age group, what they want — and increasingly demand — is the flexibility to work how, when, and where they want,” they wrote.
  • Or this 2017 article in the New York Times, which suggests, “More American employees are working remotely, and they are doing so for longer periods, according to a Gallup survey released on Wednesday. Last year, 43 percent of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely, according to the survey of more than 15,000 adults. That represents a four point percentage increase since 2012, a shift that meets the demands of many job seekers.”
  • Or this 2017 story, in which authors Adrianne Bibby and Ann Rozier compiled statistical and data-driven research about remote employees. Among their highlights: remote work increases productivity, drives employee efficiency, reduces turnover, boosts morale, lowers stress, leads to greater engagement and even positively impacts the environment. They point to statistics showing that both younger and older workers benefit from the structure, and that it’s both the “future of work” and a “global phenomenon.”

So yeah, I’d say the rumors of my kind’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

But perhaps even more importantly, I think the key issue is this: The permanent telecommuter is going extinct for some companies for some reasons. Like Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the model is evolving, which necessarily means some will die off while others will develop extraordinary enhancements that allow them to even more effectively navigate their terrain.

So let’s get this out there from the start: A virtual environment is not right for everyone — not even close! In fact, there are several factors that need to be considered if a “permanent telecommuter” arrangement is going to work.

So if I may be so bold, I’d like to address a few of those right now.

Consideration #1: Can you go all in?

As I mentioned before, I work for a company that’s 100 percent virtual. We have no physical office, and all employees work from home (or wherever there’s Wi-Fi). Most of us live in one city, but there are a handful located outside the area. It works well for us, but I realize it’s unrealistic for all companies to take that plunge. If you’re considering having a pseudo-virtual environment where employees work remotely part-time, make sure to set up a standard set of rules that apply to everyone. Having some employees working remotely and others not can create resentment.

But before you set up the rules, make sure you, as the owner, are a good candidate for having virtual employees. In order for this to work, you need to relinquish some control and accept that your employees won’t necessarily be within your grasp every minute of the day. As long as their work is getting done and they are available when necessary, all is well. If you can’t get behind this, then don’t even go down the road, because it will only lead to suspicion and frustration on your end.

Consideration #2: Do you have the right peeps?

Much like the concept that not every employer is a candidate for a virtual work environment, not every employee is cut out for it either. Some employees just aren’t disciplined enough to make productive work-from-home days work, and that’s totally okay! We’re all different and prefer different levels of structure and autonomy.

If you’re going to have a virtual environment, ask yourself if your team is comprised of self-starters. This usually means they’ve had some professional experience and can work on their own without having their hand held through every task. For us, this means not hiring full-time employees right out of college. If we do hire interns or young professionals right out of school, we have them shadow an existing employee for a period of time until they’re ready to spread their wings on their own.

Consideration #3: Are you techie enough?

The bottom line is that each full-time employee needs to be provided with the tools necessary to fulfill their job, just like an on-site employee would be. For us, that means a laptop, monitor, VoIP phone and sometimes a printer. This hardware will exist at the employee’s home only (although they do not own it) so make sure you’re hiring trustworthy people who will treat your equipment with care (see Consideration #2).

Beyond the hardware, it’s important to also provide a selection of powerful programs to help your employees be productive and accountable. When you’re virtual, software is essential for keeping employees connected and on-track.

But it’s not enough just to have the software; you must also train each and every one of your employees to use it. This doesn’t mean having a lunch-and-learn once and then forgetting about it. This means sitting down with each employee individually and going through it with them.

Consideration #4: Are you communicative enough?

We all know communication is key to most aspects of life, but in virtual environments, it’s more important than ever. You’ll need to specify processes for how employees use software as well as to internally and externally communicate. You’ll want to weigh pros and cons of using virtual enhancements and software like online mail servers, project management tools, note-taking apps, remote servers, cloud servers and instant messaging platforms — among others.

And outside of software, the human touch is still important in remote situations. Some of the best ideas come from collaboration, and just because we’re virtual doesn’t mean we don’t take advantage of teamwork — quite the opposite, in fact. To lessen potential isolation that results from our virtual-ness, we have weekly team working time (usually at a client’s common space) where employees can work together or collaborate on whatever is going on at the moment. Sometimes you just need to see something in person together. For the employees who don’t live in the area, we have regular phone calls (sometimes with video), and they visit periodically.

We also have weekly production meetings where we meet as a whole company (there are 15 of us) to go over all the current work, to touch base and get our ducks in a row. These in-person meetings help to bond us as a group and give us some social time.

Consideration #5: Do you have protocols in place?

You’ll encounter sticking points along the way, but never fear! These are opportunities for shoring up your virtual boundaries. This means you’ll need to develop rules to help employees work together comfortably and avoid frustrations. One thing we ran into at my virtual company is the “sick day” conundrum. Sometimes employees would post that they’re sick and therefore not going to meetings but then would work all day (from their house like they normally do). We had to institute a rule that if you’re sick, you must declare whether it’s a sick day (I’m working, just not leaving the house because I’m gross/contagious) or a reaaaalllllly sick day (I’m not working, I won’t answer emails/calls/texts — someone please cover for me).

We also have a protocol that if you aren’t going to be available between normal business hours — 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — you must mark this on the calendar; otherwise, we expect you to be available if we need to get in touch. Not to say you have to be working, just available.

So there you have it. No, it’s not for everyone. No, it’s not always executed well. But yes, it’s a viable work option, and some companies (namely those that reflect Considerations #1-5 above) are continuing to thrive in the virtual landscape.

Let’s be real for a moment. Before I was hired with my company, I never thought I would like working from home. Like anything, it was an adjustment at first (and of course has pros and cons), but now I absolutely love it and think it’s the way of the future. And our company is so committed to our virtual environment, that we created a video celebrating some of the highlights. Yes, of course, we talk about working in our pajamas — which is awesome when it happens, but let’s face it, isn’t actually my daily dress code.

But when it does happen, I can guarantee that my PJs do not have dinosaurs. Unicorns maybe, but not dinosaurs.

Okay, back to you Rebecca.



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