For workers, virtual work and flexible schedules mean zero commute, additional recreational and family time, greater freedom to travel, more comfortable and personalized working environments … the list goes on.
But what about for businesses? In an effort to retain talent, attract candidates and stand out in today's tight labor market, more organizations than ever are allowing members of their teams to work from home some or all of the time. In fact, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests the pattern will continue, with 73% of all teams having remote workers by 2028.
What's less clear is the impact of these arrangements on organizations' bottom lines. Do remote environments impact worker productivity? Is it possible to nurture both flexibility and increased engagement within your organization?
The short answer: yes. Remote workers regularly meet and exceed objectives, identify new processes, and contribute to company culture just as much as anyone in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting. In fact, they tend to accomplish more. According to a two-year study by Stanford University, remote workers are, on average …
13.5% more productive than their office-based counterparts.
9% more engaged in their jobs.
50% less likely to quit.
This may seem counterintuitive, but the stereotypical image of a virtual worker – someone sitting around in their pajamas, prone to distractions and in desperate need of a shower – has little basis in reality. Instead, imagine a diverse community of empowered, autonomous and entrepreneurial-minded professionals.
Consider a few reasons why remote, at-home working arrangements increase team engagement – and, by extension, organizational productivity.
1. A remote workforce is a more inclusive, higher-quality workforce.
Common human resources wisdom states that engagement starts with recruitment. To maximize job satisfaction (and, therefore, job performance), you need to hire the most qualified, relevant candidates. Unfortunately, businesses are frequently limited by their local talent pools.
Call center positions, for example, are typically entry-level jobs with high rates of turnover. It's not that employers don't care, but that few highly educated, experienced individuals are willing to take on low-wage, full-time work in traditional, regimented call center environments. Other would-be candidates have family commitments, geographical restrictions or disabilities that preclude their ability to sit in an office answering phones for hours straight.
By shifting to a remote workforce, companies of all kinds can expand their talent searches to include parents, people who work multiple jobs and out-of-state workers – whoever the best fit for the job may be.
2. Remote workers are happier – and more productive.
Beyond better hiring and recruitment, consider the benefits flexibility offers to your existing workforce. Remote workers have more room to balance their jobs and personal lives. They can relocate, travel, care for their families, pursue hobbies and engage in other non-work-related activities without sacrificing their careers.
It should come as no surprise, then, that people who work from home at least once a month are 24% more likely to feel happy, according to a 2018 Owl Labs report. But virtual teams aren't necessarily looking to avoid work – quite the opposite. Notably, while respondents named "no commute" and "family/work-life balance" as major perks for working remotely, the No. 1 reason was "increased productivity/better focus." In other words, workers care as much about their engagement as you do, which is why many of them prefer to work remotely.
3. Flexibility fosters self-determination.
Given the nature of their jobs, virtual teams are not entirely confined to conventional working schedules. Someone in a creative field may be compensated based on the projects they complete rather than the hours they put into those projects, while service-oriented professionals can work on an as-needed basis.
These kinds of arrangements not only help companies lower their overhead costs, but incentivize workers to take their careers into their own hands. This is evidenced in the so-called gig economy, where Uber drivers, Airbnb hosts and other on-demand workers are in charge of their own revenue streams. That means they have as much to gain from a steady, dependable working relationship as the organization does.
4. Technology gives remote teams numerous opportunities to connect, collaborate and contribute.
One common concern among companies that haven't embraced remote, on-demand work is team cohesion. How do you ensure the members of your workforce don't become isolated? The truth is that companies should be more concerned about teamwork in their brick-and-mortar environments.
Thanks to a proliferation in communication technology, virtual teams tend to connect more frequently and on a deeper level than they would in person. In addition to everyday tools such as Slack, Skype, Dropbox and Google Drive – which make virtual collaboration easy for any team – remote workers benefit from self-paced and self-directed learning and gamification embedded in their workflows.
Collaboration is built into many remote working arrangements and talent networks. The most effective networks optimize virtual communication and productivity in tandem, bringing together skilled workers across states (and even countries) and allowing members to share tips and stories and forge connections with one another. These relationships simply wouldn't happen outside of a virtual environment.
5. They have better working environments and fewer interruptions.
By now, you've probably noticed a theme: It's distractions, not distance, that hinders worker engagement. Think of all the distractions present in a typical, centralized working environment: office politics, gossip, idle conversation, unnecessary meetings, "check-ins" from micromanaging supervisors, multiple breaks for food and coffee, and so on.
These distractions can disrupt a worker's sense of focus, personal space and well-being, impacting their productivity and morale in ways big and small. At best, someone loses a few minutes of their time; at worst, we're talking about potential harassment, bullying, and other forms of unsafe and illegal workplace behavior.
Once again, autonomy increases engagement. Remote workers have greater freedom – the freedom to avoid a troublesome co-worker, to leave an unproductive conversation, to choose when and how to engage. They're in control of their own environments, and they report feeling less stressed as a result.
It's important to mention that remote work isn't for everyone. Not every worker possesses the drive and discipline to transition out of an office job. More often than not, however, that's because the individual wasn't the right fit in the first place – it's hard to make yourself care about something you'd rather not do, even with a supervisor standing over you.
Fortunately, plenty of people who do care are out there, just waiting to work for your business.