Managing a staff of remote workers that clock in from home may be the way of the future for many small businesses.
Why? Remote working makes for happier, more efficient employees. Plus, it has the potential to slash the overhead costs of running a business. And with more job roles becoming primarily digital, remote working has never been more feasible or more popular.
“So much of what we do is mediated by technology now,” says Scott Berkun, author of “The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work” and a former team leader at Automattic. “Why wouldn’t you want your employees to try working elsewhere? Because that’s going to improve the quality of their life without reducing their performance.”
Imagine, for example, how much time your employees would gain if they nixed that cumbersome 45-minute commute to and from work. Do the maths, and you’ll see an extra 90 minutes each day means 7.5 freed up hours a week, which is a whopping 375 hours per year, assuming a standard 50-week work schedule:
That’s all extra time your employees could put toward preparing for their jobs, sleeping more, unwinding with family, or any of the other little things that make for happier and more productive workers. What’s more, remote workers have added freedom to set their own schedules (within reason, of course). After all, if someone is a morning person, why not let her put in eight or nine hours from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., when she’s most alert and ready to tackle the job?
Remote working is catching on quickly in the U.S. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of people choosing to work from home, or telecommute, ballooned 79.7%, according to the latest data from Global Workplace Analytics. That amounts to some 3.3 million remote workers at last count (not including the self-employed or unpaid volunteers), or 2.6% of the U.S. employee workforce.
More businesses are jumping on the trend.
Mozilla (which produces Firefox), 37signals (Basecamp, Campfire), and Automattic (WordPress) are among the well-known companies that are what Berkun calls “100% distributed,” meaning the predominant culture is working from home, with employees scattered across several states or countries.
Remote working is particularly accessible to startups and small businesses because they typically aren’t hampered by a preexisting office culture. David Heinemeier Hansson, a co-author of the upcoming “Remote: Office Not Required” and partner at 37signals, says remote working is now a go-to strategy for young companies trying to get off the ground.
“When I talk to new entrepreneurs, there are a lot of those guys where remote work is the default, simply because when you’re starting a new business it’s hard enough as it is without trying to lease office space, get phones set up, and all the other distractions,” he explains.
Berkun offers a similar opinion. “Small businesses and new businesses have undefined territory,” he says. “There’s no status quo, and they have the freedom to try things.”
To be sure, remote working isn’t a perfect solution. It can be isolating for workers and create communication challenges for managers. Indeed, many sided with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer when she told the company’s remote workers to either come in to the office or quit, in an effort to cut costs, tackle bloated infrastructure, and increase efficiency. Mayer has said in defence of her decision that “people are more productive when they’re alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”
Then again, there are ways to achieve collaboration and innovation without direct physical contact. Technologies like video-chatting via Skype or Google Hangout and instant messaging have taken care of that. Heinemeier Hansson also thinks remote working helps guard against the danger of over-collaboration, which he says happens when too many meetings wind up stifling creativity and productivity rather than spurring it.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, remote working strips away the unimportant things people get judged on in the office — appearance, gender, age, etc. — and emphasises only the work they produce. Berkun claims it embodies the American “meritocracy ideal,” where “you are visible for your results.”