Questions Executives Should Ask About Working Remotely -Part 1

Dustin Staiger

Even though between 80%-90% of the U.S. workforce expresses interest in working remotely at least part of the time, only 2.8% of the workforce actually does. Based on those numbers, it’s likely your company has already had to address the option of remote work. So, how do you decide if working remotely is right for your workers?

After examining the remote work trend closely, we think it points to another issue that may not be solved by letting employees skip the office. In the end, we think there are a couple other questions you should ask before your decide whether your workers are ready to work remotely. First, do the remote working statistics actually hold up? And second, what happens if we stay together instead?

Question #1: Do the Remote Working Numbers Really Hold Up?

A question that seems to be skipped quite often is, “what inspired the 3.7 million employees who work remotely to want to leave their office in the first place?” Much of the information you’ll find about working remotely focuses on the pros and cons of remote work without addressing the cause. Many people are asking how to allow remote work without asking “Why do they want to leave?

Evangelists will claim remote working increases productivity. Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, published an interview with James Liang, co-founder of the Chinese travel website, Ctrip, to see if working remotely boosts productivity.

The geographic location is not the problem. The office environment is the problem.

For 9 months, half of Ctrip’s call center employees were allowed to work from home while a control group remained in the office. The result? Those handling their calls from home conducted 13.5% more phone calls.

If an extra day of productivity sounds too good to be true, it is. A deeper examination of the interview shows how skewed these numbers are. Call centers are full of others taking calls, speaking loudly, and phones ringing. Working remotely may be helpful for a group of call center workers. What about people who need to collaborate and have discussions with co-workers? 

“The more robotic the work, the greater the benefits,” said Liang. In other words, of course productivity increases when work that requires solitude is finally done in solitude. So, why do workers want to leave? The geographic location is not the problem. The office environment is the problem. Letting employees work outside the office is like putting on a Band-Aid when the office environment may need a transplant.

Question #2: What Happens If We Stay Together?

Ben Waber, CEO of Sociometric Solutions, conducted a study of programmers who work remotely. He found that while robotic jobs are improved by working remotely, tasks that require communication and fine-tuning become tremendously difficult when not accomplished by a team in person. 

What did Waber discover? He found programmers working remotely are 8% less likely to communicate about dependencies, which results in it taking 32% longer to complete coding work. In other words, when it comes to tasks that require creative thinking and communication between employees, not being in the same area can actually do damage. 

“If it’s about you banging out e-mails or writing a report, sure. You can do that wherever,” Waber said, “But the vast majority of stuff we do at work today-teamwork, not individual work- that is the stuff that really measurably suffers.” This decline in productivity can cost big companies up to millions of dollars per year.

That was the motivation behind Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, announcing that none of the 12,000 Yahoo employees would be permitted to work remotely. Instead of telling employees they could work in their pajamas, Marissa and the executives at Yahoo fixed the real problem of poor office environments. They decided to make Yahoo’s offices desirable enough so employees would look forward to getting dressed and going to their workplace. 

When it comes to tasks that require creative thinking and communication between employees, working remotely can actually do some damage.

Steve Hargis, author of the piece, “The Power of Presence: Being Present in a Virtual World,” advised Yahoo on overhauling their headquarters in Sunnyvale. Several floors were remade and furniture was changed to create more of a team atmosphere (as opposed to the cubicles Yahoo had before–truly, the cubicle life would make any employee want to work remotely). “These are the spaces packed with stand-up desks and scrum boards, not to mention employees,” Hargis said, “the difference between the [cubicles and stand-up desk areas] is so visible, it’s become a marketing tool. People are saying, ‘Wait a minute, I want to be over there.’”

The inspiration for remote work may be an undesirable office stuck with design from the 70’s. Creating a better office environment with the right furniture pieces may make your remote workers want to be in your building as often as possible. 

What resulted from Yahoo’s office overhaul?

doubling of stock price that immediately demanded the attention of a CEO from an even larger company (more on that in part 2).