In recent years, as part of a more comprehensive strategy of empowering employees to do their best work, more companies are seeing the benefits of offering flexibility in the different ways work is done, including the option to work remotely.
Similar to providing a workplace that offers a variety of settings in which to work, there are occasions when it makes sense for employees to have the choice to telecommute. In the last decade, the number of remote workers has grown dramatically. There are now about 26 million, or roughly 15% of the workforce, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nimble organizations embrace this option, not only because they realize the efficacy of such an arrangement for certain modes of working, but also because they know the advantage of having a workforce already adept at remote work, if and when an emergency—such as a community health crisis—dictates that work be done offsite. And perhaps most importantly, in today’s “war for talent,” flexible work can be a powerful instrument for attraction and retention.
It is clear that some activities are best performed through face-to-face interaction. Working remotely doesn't have to be a definitive choice of “either/or,” but rather should be viewed as a “both/and” scenario. It depends on a variety of elements, such as the culture of the organization, the nature of the work, and the workstyle preferences of the individual. If any of those aren’t a good fit, adaptations may be needed.
Certain kinds of work can be done remotely, and some types should be done face-to-face.
One driver of remote work is addressing the issue of focus. The inability to complete focus work in the office continues to be a top employee complaint. The biggest distraction is often interruptions by colleagues.
The optimum conditions for focus work are difficult to define. Science is helping us better understand how focus work gets done in the workplace and what can sabotage it. We conducted a series of experiments on the topic in Haworth’s Human Performance Lab. Here’s what we’ve learned:
Depending on the specific task and the level of expertise a person has at it, visual and auditory distractions—combined—can create drops in performance anywhere between 3% and 23%, on average.
Our results and existing research tell us that successfully completing focus work depends on the person and the task, in addition to the environment. Newer research is providing evidence that our brains continuously gather and assess information about ourselves, our world and our place in it via our senses—much of it outside of our awareness.
It is hypothesized that, when what our senses gather easily fits with what we already know, our brains predict what is about to happen. When we get better at predicting what is about to occur, we need to pay attention less to outside information to achieve our goals.
Distraction also depends on the relevance of the conversation around you. Akin to what happens at a cocktail party, if you hear your name or something familiar, your ears perk up. Everything else, you're more likely to drown out. What happens at work is, when people talk, almost every conversation is relevant so it's very distracting. In a coffeehouse or remote coworking environment, there may be the same level of noise—if not more—than at the office. However, there isn’t as much relevance, so it is usually less distracting. This is even more evident in another country, for example, where you're surrounded by people speaking a different language.
The effect of background noise can depend on the kind of focus required for a task. If you are responding to emails, noise may not be an issue. If you are writing a report, working through a complex problem, or mastering a new skill, you might need complete silence. The option to work remotely may provide the respite necessary for focus work that can’t be accommodated by the number of quiet, private spaces in the office.
Giving workers the autonomy to choose where, when, and how they work is often the key to success in retaining employees. This can be achieved by offering choice and variety in the elements of their workday, such as control over workspace features, selection of available work tools, or which environment best suits the particular work task. Ultimately, it’s about offering flexibility. This is important in the “war for talent” because flexibility is not just a superficial perk like a ping-pong table but rather something more meaningful that can reduce stress and contribute to an employee’s well-being. In survey after survey, workers (especially younger workers) say they are willing to walk away from higher pay if a job doesn’t offer flexibility that prioritizes work-life balance.
The tradition of requiring people to be in the office for all work doesn’t necessarily guarantee productivity. Empowering employees with the autonomy to determine their own optimal work practices, including choice of work environments, can signal respect and build a level of trust that pays dividends in the employee’s ultimate contribution to the organization.
Embracing this kind of flexibility—and making sure the tools are in place for them to do it successfully—helps a company be ready for whatever lies ahead.
Tools for Remote Work
There are best practices for putting remote work in place, especially with regards to remote collaboration.
As a workplace design strategist, remote work has been at least a part of my workday most of my career. I am part of a distributed team that is dispersed over several time zones, which means that collaboration is often virtual, whether real time or delayed. We use message platforms that let several people communicate in conversation threads and share documents. For remote meetings, we turn to teleconferencing, which lets us use screen-sharing options rather than just providing facetime.
We should be aware, however, that not all work is the same. Most collaboration benefits greatly from the nuanced communication enabled by actual physical presence. Fruitful side notes, impromptu tangents and personal connections are also more likely to occur in a face-to-face meeting. The key question to answer would be discerning when you need to be present and when you can be virtual or delayed.
Lest We Forget…
Discussion of workspace design can easily turn to floorplans. However, leaders who want to reap all the benefits of a flexible workspace need to adopt a holistic mindset that focuses on the people who use the workspace.
While my work allows me to work from anywhere, I find myself often heading to the San Francisco Haworth showroom that is a short walk from home. For one thing, it is a beautiful space, and it makes me happy just to be in the thoughtfully designed environment. Another reason is that there is a level of energy and buzz—even though at times distracting—that has an invigorating effect on my workday. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, from a human-centered lens: Sharing a common “place” with colleagues creates opportunities for social connections that go beyond “work” and can create meaningful experiences within any organization.
It is hard to understate the need for the workplace to be a dynamic and inspiring destination which builds community and fosters effective collaboration. At the same time, it is important to identify remote work as an option that, when deployed in a thoughtful and considered manner, can help an organization provide its workforce a greater sense of autonomy and increase the efficacy of the ways in which people work. Flexibility is a virtue that can make both the organization and its members more resilient, responsive, and successful.
Workplace Design Strategist at Haworth