When COVID-19 began its worldwide spread early in 2020, businesses of all shapes and sizes had to transition employees to ad hoc work-from-home schemes. As it turned out, the world didn't come crashing down around those businesses. Instead, surveys show that 94% of such businesses have the same or higher productivity levels since the pandemic began.
That raises a valid question: Should more businesses think about making remote work a permanent feature of their operations?
That's a tricky decision to make. Businesses open to such a move should carefully analyze their needs, weighing them against the possible limitations of a remote workforce. Here are the steps to figure out if it's a good long-term solution for your business and prepare for a permanent shift to remote work if so.
Step 1: Break down job descriptions.
The first step in a permanent transition to remote work is to take an inventory of the day-to-day tasks that employees were doing onsite. It's critical to break down everyone's work to this level, because it will help you identify current roles that aren't well suited to a remote setting and which ones would make the transition easily.
Remember, there's no reason that your business has to adhere to previously defined job roles. For example, if you discover a handful of accounting tasks that require an onsite presence, you might consolidate them into a single new position and group the rest of the work into new remote-eligible roles. But don't get discouraged if you find a mountain of tasks that call for an in-office worker – after all, most workflows weren't conceived with remote workers in mind and will need some updates.
Step 2: Retool workflows.
Once you've identified the various tasks current workers do that won't work in a remote setting, look for ways to adapt those tasks to remote work. In general, this task will go hand in hand with other efforts in digitization and automation. For the most part, anything that isn't a manufacturing process should have a path toward a digitized process.
At this stage, it's not necessary to undertake the actual work of digitizing workflows unless it's part of a preexisting plan. You'll want to total up the costs that come with the effort to use in your cost-benefit analysis of your remote work plan. At that point, you might find that sticking with in-office work makes more financial sense or that a phased transition is more appropriate, so it's wise to put off changes.
Step 3: Analyze capital costs.
In most cases, reconfiguring workflows and preparing your business's infrastructure to handle remote workers for the long term won't be cheap. But that doesn't mean it's not worth it. To find out, you'll need to add up all of the costs associated with transitioning your workforce to their new mode of operation and supporting them going forward.
This is where things start to get complicated. You'll need to factor in at-home liability for employees, new cybersecurity needs and everything in between. Depending on where your business operates, it might incur all kinds of costs that you may not be anticipating, such as these:
- State-mandated employee expense reimbursements
- Infrastructure costs (providing secure remote access, at-home work equipment, connectivity)
- Remote tech support
- Unified communications tools
- Costs to break leases if office downsizing is necessary
It's important to be as thorough as possible in identifying the costs involved. The closer your estimates are to reality, the more informed your decision on a long-term remote work plan will be.
Step 4: Calculate cost savings.
When you get over the sticker shock from your cost analysis, look at how the move to working from home will save your business money. There are likely to be plenty of cost savings, both obvious and otherwise. It's also important to recognize that many of the indirect benefits could save your business a small fortune in the long run.
For example, studies have demonstrated that remote workers take fewer sick days and tend to reduce absenteeism overall. That can save a business more than you might expect. According to the CDC, absenteeism costs businesses around $1,685 per employee in lost productivity every year, so even a marginal improvement can lead to significant savings.
Remote work typically boosts employee retention as well. According to Crain's Future of Work survey, 78% of employees list flexible work and telecommuting options as the most effective nonmonetary retention tools businesses can offer. Considering that even low-wage, high-turnover workers cost up to 16% of their annual salary to replace, the cost savings there might be more than you'd imagine.
Step 5: Project your ROI.
By now, it's becoming fairly obvious how well a permanent work-from-home program might work for your company. If a cursory comparison of your costs and savings shows that you're coming out ahead, things are headed in the right direction. But if it appears at first glance that the costs outweigh the benefits, that doesn't automatically mean that working from home is a nonstarter for your business.
What you need is a full projection of your return on investment, looking forward at least five years from the date your work-from-home program begins. It should account for the fact that year one will likely see above-average costs owing to facility changes, one-time technology purchases and other short-term outlays. But by the fifth year, the combined savings on facilities, employee turnover, low in-office productivity and infrastructure should have put the business back in the black overall.
Step 6: Make the decision.
After going through all of those steps, you should now know approximately what it'll take for your business to extend its remote work policy permanently to some or all of its employees. You should also know how much the move will positively or negatively impact your bottom line. But in the real world, that's not all there is to the decision.
With all of the data in hand, it's time to decide if your business has the financial wherewithal to roll out a work-from-home plan immediately or if it's a better idea to phase it in gradually. It could turn out that existing facility leases or capital costs make it impossible to move forward right away. In that case, it's a good idea to revisit your earlier projections and gauge what it would take to prepare your organization over two or more fiscal years for an eventual move to permanent remote work.
In all likelihood, you will find a viable path to embrace a work-from-home model. Once that's established, discuss the potential plans with all of the stakeholders involved. Remember, not every employee will be thrilled with the idea of working from home some or all of the time, and not every team will thrive under those conditions.
If it appears that all systems are go, you should have a decent road map on how to proceed. Then, all that's left is to execute the plan and make whatever changes make sense along the way. If all goes well, your business will be all set to face the future of work – and enjoy its benefits today.