Without going into too much detail, I am involved in this particular topic at a rather large scale. For the past (now that I really think about it) 11 years, I’ve been trying to find a way to remove barriers to working remotely. This stemmed from a work stoppage incident when I was younger, where there was a picket line we could not cross and a rather substantial emergency that needed to be addressed. I got through the line, but lost so much time it was dumb. I figured if I could be a webmaster for a bunch of websites across North America, why couldn’t I do the same thing with my “real” job?
Security is the first, second, and third answer to that question. That issue has gotten worse over the years, and you all see it on smart phones that start showing you ads for things you’re talking about, clearly listening to you. But a Fort Knox defense can’t mean 10minutes of hoops to get access, it needs to find the right balance of user experience and on-going monitoring, with privacy controls. They need to securely connect with ease, and I need to make sure that it’s really them and that the connection itself “is clean”. Heck of a dance.
Fourth is scale. Remote access solutions are just like a security checkpoint at an airport. They need to let a TON of people through a key points of the day, and then have less use in other times. Peak load starts at 8AM and tapers off near 3PM, time zone specific. While there are plenty of solutions on the planet, few of them can operate at the scale I need and the security criteria as well.
Fifth is performance. This one is complicated because of “old stuff”. In the older “on-site” model, you were inside the perimeter and could generally move about with ease. If you wanted to get a box of paper from one office to your desk, not too bad. In a remote world, you’re trying to get that same box of paper from the same office, to your home desk. It needs to pass the security gates and then ship. What was a 2 minute job may take an hour now. And you can’t use any paper but that. For remote work to be useful, the boxes of paper need to be as close to the door as possible, to make it as fast as possible. Now imagine there are millions of offices with boxes. Hah!
I’ve had an uphill battle against a culture that was adamant that people would not work without direct supervision, or that face to face meetings was the only way to manage people. While this may seem like it’s a challenge for the team under a manager, it’s actually the manager who is the problem. If that manager is spending their day looking over people’s shoulders, then the company is paying them to babysit.
Don’t get me wrong, there are people who need the daily human contact in the office to stay sane. I’ve met more than a few that need to have those 3 coffees a day break in order to be productive. There are people who simply cannot work remotely for physical reasons (like a tiny apartment, bad internet, noise, or the actual work is physical). Then there’s the serendipitous aspect of work, where conversations in the elevator/hall can trigger something new (the nature of this aspect makes it random).
Are teams more or less productive in or out of the office? The entire pandemic proved that the world can be extremely productive, if given the appropriate toolset.
Directly, it costs much less to have a remote workforce than an on-site one. The real property costs for office space are numbers you don’t want to imagine. You could give every employee $5,000 a year and it still would be a drop in the bucket.
And yet, there are costs to the company, especially if they own the building. Apple’s new HQ cost $5 billion dollars. That’s a lot, until you realize Apple profits per quarter are like $20 billion (they paid it off in 3 weeks). Corporate needs to be accountable, and the math on bad real property investments has not been sorted out yet.
Then there are the indirect costs to the community. Coffee and lunch shops all but closed up completely on my city’s downtown core. More of them opened in the suburbs where people now work. The people that were working in those locations now can’t, and need to travel to a new one. And tax revenues are higher in a downtown core, so the municipality is actually losing money. Heating/cooling/power/water costs are shifted as well, where peak demand is now spread to a larger area. We’ve still got a ways to go to figure this all out.
All that to get here. Remote work has multiple benefits.
- Working from anywhere at anytime means flexibility for the employee. Dentist appointment? Much easier to do that in the middle of the day and still get work done. Want to work from a patio, or next to a pool? Be in a scent-full zone? Avoid nosy cubicle neighbours? All of it works.
- Ability to hire a more diverse workforce. I could hire folks only in my city, or I could hire people across the country/globe. Why have someone work til 8pm here when I can have someone work til 5pm on the West Coast and cover the same time? Assuming the person has a viable internet connection (not guaranteed for all, certainly), they are a candidate
- It forces adoption of digital tools. I still remember my boss asking me to print out a wiki, and 2 weeks before the pandemic hit, someone was hired to print daily binders. The idea of HR taking a piece of paper in the mail and shipping it around for 3 months is dead. They get a digital signature and can process within a few minutes. Digital tools simply remove “wait times”. Those folks sitting in a chair 8 hours but doing 15 minutes of work are all but gone.
- It doesn’t prevent people from meeting face to face or socializing, if they are geographically close. They can have a big team planning meeting and then head out to lunch.
- It is a tool to attract talent. I’ll be super up front on this, the best talent doesn’t need to be sitting in a desk in an office building. The brightest folks are “on” 24/7 inside their head and giving them the tools to be creative is fundamental. They are in high demand, and while pay is a primary incentive, flexibility is the next one. Apple lost their AI exec because of this, and he found a job the next day. It’s an employee’s market… anyone who thinks otherwise is going to go out of business.
We’re in a cultural shift, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable as we’ve been in a “worksite” mindset for nearly 100 years. But it’s the future.