Remote work is the practice of employees doing their jobs from a location other than a central office operated by the employer. Such locations could include an employee’s home, a co-working or other shared space, a private office, or any other place outside of the traditional corporate office building or campus.
Remote work has become increasingly popular because it offers benefits for both employers and employees alike. It also gained a great deal of renewed attention as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many organizations to quickly shift from a traditional face-to-face work environment to a fully remote workforce for health and safety reasons.
The long-term popularity of remote working is tied to the upsides it can provide, including reduced or eliminated commuting times, recruiting and hiring advantages, and productivity improvements.
- Strong, reliable connectivity: Virtual teams depend heavily on fast internet and mobile technologies that can support intensive use.
- Communication and collaboration tools: Remote workers need to be able to work together as if they were all in the same location. This requires secure, high-quality applications and platforms for technologies like chat, videoconferencing, file sharing, remote desktops, and other regular business needs.
- Healthy culture: High-performing virtual teams usually have cultures of trust and teamwork, often focused more on results than on “face time” or hours spent in the office.A culture that promotes remote work also includes supportive management that believes in the remote approach and empowers individuals and teams to be successful with this style of work.
Both individuals and organizations tend to choose remote work because it offers some clear-cut benefits compared with traditional on-site work. These include:
- Decreased or eliminated commutes: Remote workers tend to spend less time traveling to and from their work location, especially if they opt to work in a home office. This often means that a remote worker regains significant time in their lives each week. Someone who would otherwise spend 30 minutes commuting each way would save five hours a week by working at home, in addition to saving on transportation costs.
- Enhanced business continuity: Virtual teams are often more naturally adaptable because they do not need to be in the same location to do their jobs. This can be a boon for business continuity planning, particularly in any unexpected or emergency scenarios where employees would suddenly be unable to work on site.
- Reduced need for corporate office space: Organizations with a significant remote workforce usually require less physical office space, which means savings and greater long-term flexibility.
- Recruiting and hiring advantages: Hiring for a remote workforce can greatly expand a manager’s pool of potential candidates, because they don’t need to be local and/or the company does not need to offer expensive relocation packages. This can be particularly beneficial to any recruiter or hiring manager operating in an especially competitive local labor market, or facing skills shortages for particular roles.
Although there’s no single “right” way of working remotely, there are some general best practices to create the conditions for success. These include:
- Clear guidelines and policies: A culture of trust is often grounded in a healthy understanding of expectations: Is a person expected to be “in the office” (or accessible for communication online) by a certain time or for a certain number of hours a day? How is performance measured? What devices and applications are approved for business use? And so forth.
- Team building: A virtual team is still a team. Managers, in particular, have a responsibility to build collaborative, communicative teams that are invested in each other’s success. This could include occasionally meeting in person when possible, such as for a retreat or social event, as well as other practices such as celebrating individual and team achievements.
- Top-notch technologies: Companies with high-performing remote teams invest in the technologies their people rely on to do their jobs. These include remote desktops and mobile devices, high-speed broadband, reliable and easy-to-use applications, and other business-specific needs.
Problems with remote working tend to surface when the best practices and basic principles of how remote teams work are missing. This leads to challenges such as:
- Productivity drains: Without clear guidelines and policies, employees can lose their motivation and reduce productivity.
- Mistrust and micromanagement: A lack of trust, or the virtual equivalent of looking over someone’s shoulder to make sure they are doing their work, can increase anxiety and decrease morale.
- Unreliable technology: Inadequate tools and technologies can be a productivity and morale killer for virtual teams. Poor broadband connections, unreliable applications, outdated hardware—all of these can lead to frustration and greatly diminish results.
- The reluctant remote workforce: Finally, another challenge can arise when either the employee or employer is not working remotely as an intentional choice or strategy. Remote work is best suited for people and organizations who seek it out for its advantages.
Working from a home office is one form of remote work, but the two terms are not necessarily interchangeable. This is because remote working does not prescribe where someone works; it just means that they rarely go into a traditional office to do their job. Their day-to-day norm is to work from some other location, which may be in their home but is not limited to that location.
Moreover, “working from home” may also refer to a temporary or less frequent version of remote work. This scenario could include, for example, a person who is unexpectedly working from home for a day or two because of a short-term childcare need, but who otherwise would ordinarily work from the company’s office. This style of working is sometimes called telecommuting or telework. Whereas remote workers typically work from an off-site location most or all of the time, telecommuting or teleworking typically means that the person also regularly works on-site in a traditional office.