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Why telecommuting could be choking your business

Working from home.  It’s got to be a good thing, right?  Everyone knows that it’s hugely valued by employees. It gives them flexibility to work around other commitments. It reduces their stress levels.  No frustrating commute to work and fewer interruptions when they’ve got an important deadline. Work/life balance is better which means they’re less likely to be off sick.  Surely that’s a win-win?

It’s true that it’s become the norm, particularly in the tech sector.  A 2016 study involving 8,000 global employees and employers by Vodafone found that three-quarters of companies worldwide have adopted flexible working policies and 61% believe that it increased company profits. Compared to a decade ago, the number of remote workers has increased by 115%.

So far, so good! Yet, there’s also new evidence that remote working may not be so great for growing businesses. In a new survey released this month, The Global Work Connectivity Study, two-thirds of remote workers said they were disengaged and more likely to quit.

This doesn’t surprise me and adds to my feeling that businesses with too many remote workers can really struggle to grow.  Here’s why.

Telecommuting can erode trust

Trust is just as important in professional relationships as it is in personal ones. It’s at the heart of all our interactions. Companies that build a strong sense of trust have a clear vision and the agility to respond fast to unpredictable events. It’s also vital for staff to feel that they’re trusted – it improves morale and reduces decision times.

If you know your remote workers are at the top of their game and you trust them, then great.  However, all too often, this isn’t the case. There can be questions about how people are spending their time.  For even the most motivated staff, the temptations and distractions of working in their own home can prove too great. The resulting lack of trust becomes corrosive and leads to resentment among those who do and don’t work from home.

Remote working is too isolated

Ultimately, human beings are social animals.  We rely on face-to-face interaction to make us feel included and give us a sense of shared purpose.

There’s also the fun that comes from getting to know people.  The effortless ‘banter’ of chatting to your colleagues, understanding who they really are and forming social bonds.  ‘Water-cooler’ conversations that build friendship and common ground should not be under-valued.

All of this is lost when you work from home.  Communication becomes much harder. There’s really no substitute for eye contact and body language.  It’s amazing how much can be miscommunicated when you’re not in the same room as someone else. Conference calls become painful, emails aggressive and confrontational.  It’s easy for communications to get twisted or misconstrued. Small misunderstandings snowball into bigger issues and leave staff feeling frustrated, upset and demotivated.

The isolation of working from home can also be depressing. Going days without any human contact can be incredibly lonely, having a damaging effect on both mental and physical health.  A recent report by the Campaign to End Loneliness has said that social isolation costs UK employers £2.5 billion a year in productivity losses, absenteeism and turnover.

The desire to work from home is often driven by the inconvenience and stress of long commutes. No one likes them. According to Best Companies, the tipping point is a 45 minutes journey.  Any more than that and staff engagement starts to drop. To my mind, the solution is to not hire staff with long commutes in the first place. We had this approach when I was Managing Director of Peer 1 in Southampton and, in five years, it didn’t impact the quality of staff we hired.  Staff retention was also high.

Changing culture is more difficult with remote workers

In my work as a scale-up coach, I’m often looking at ways to decode and improve the culture of my clients. This can be essential to organisational growth and development.  It becomes much, much more difficult when there’s a high percentage of remote workers in the company.

That’s because it’s hard to build a community when everyone’s so spread out.  Businesses with great cultures often have special rituals which instil a sense of shared purpose and experience (more about this in my next blog).  These spark behaviours that make the work and company more successful. It’s much more difficult to embed these in the daily experience of the organisation when people aren’t physically there.

At Peer 1, we wanted to build a culture that energised staff and attracted the best talent available. To do this, we built an office that was designed around interaction and fun.  A giant helter-skelter slide dominated the space which also included an indoor garden, cinema, pool table and even a pub! Our staff were allowed to work from home but, surprise surprise, most of them didn’t as they loved coming into work!  

Remote working holds back innovation

In 2013, the Chief Executive of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, decided to ban employees from home-working.  She felt people were more inventive when they came together and far more likely to collaborate. Her decision stemmed from her first few months at Yahoo, when she spent a couple of hours each day in the cafe, talking to any member of staff who fancied a chat.  Some employees told her they weren’t able to move forward with new ideas as their colleagues weren’t on site.

Within a few months of introducing the ban, Yahoo’s senior director of real estate and workplace, Julie Ford-Tempesta, reported ‘The workplace has become a catalyst for energy and buzz. Employee engagement is up, product launches have increased significantly, and agile teams are thriving’.  Interesting stuff.

Collaboration is hugely important to creativity. Whilst there are plenty of technical solutions that are supposed to make this easier for remote workers, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face meeting to brainstorm ideas.  This is, to my mind, the best way to encourage innovative thinking. Teleconferences are a poor alternative.

Remote working makes it harder to build teams

It’s much, much harder to build effective, successful teams when staff work from home.  To form strong bonds, the members of a good team need to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Understanding of differences is really important but is less likely to happen without physical contact.  Empathy occurs much less naturally when people aren’t looking each other in the eye.

Teams formed from remote workers can be disjointed, meaning team members worry about voicing concerns or are more likely to take offence to well-meant criticism.  They can easily feel unsupported if projects go wrong and it can be harder to manage them effectively.

So what’s my feeling from all of this? It’s that if you’re trying to change and grow your business, your staff need to be in the office.  

That doesn’t mean I don’t agree with flexibility – quite the opposite. It’s important to build a culture where staff are trusted to manage their own time and get on with their jobs.  If this means the odd day working from home, then great. But when they spend the majority of their time at home, it can make it far more difficult to build a shared sense of purpose.  And that is vital for business expansion.

Written by expert business coach Dom Monkhouse — founder of Foundry Media. Find out more about his work here.

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