Remote possibilities: The curious case of remote workers who work better than office workers

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 4:49 p.m. MDT

A recent survey suggests remote workers may be more productive and engaged than their on-site cohorts.  (Shutterstock.com) A recent survey suggests remote workers may be more productive and engaged than their on-site cohorts. (Shutterstock.com)

Scott Edinger didn't have any particular expectations when he gave the survey. It was just a typical set of leadership and development questions, the type consultants use all the time. But Edinger was giving it both to employees who worked in the office of an investment company and to its employees who worked at home.

"It was out of pure curiosity," he says.

The remote workers — people who were not located with their bosses and co-workers — were actually more engaged and committed to their jobs than people who worked on-site.

As companies look for ways to save money in a recovering economy, and as employees look for workplace flexibility to improve their quality of life, remote working is on the rise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 19 percent of all wage and salary workers work from home on a typical weekday. And working from home doesn't seem to hurt productivity, either. For example, Stanford conducted an experiment with Ctrip, a Chinese travel website company, and found that employees who worked from home were 13 percent more productive than employees who worked in the office.

Edinger's survey of about 50 workers found that remote workers were "a couple tenths of a point" more engaged and committed than their office-bound colleagues. His results, although not rising to the level of the Stanford study, were not entirely surprising to him. Edinger is the founder of Edinger Consulting Group, the co-author of "The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate" and blogs for the Harvard Business Review. He has worked remotely and works with remote workers often.

"I know people who are in their offices and say they never see their managers and never talk to them," Edinger says. "They are behind a closed door, they are in and out, they are on the road. And they never see them except when they have team meetings and everybody is in from out of town."

But somehow it doesn't seem right that people who are far away would be doing as well or better than people in the office.

"Even the word 'remote' conjures up working in a far place," Edinger says. "It makes us think of not being connected and being away from the center of things."

The center of things is, traditionally, the office.

Work has changed

Lionel Robert is an assistant professor of information in the University of Michigan's School of Information and is an expert in "team collaboration in virtual environments." He says says Edinger's survey results do not surprise him, either.

"Ten or 15 years ago it may have been different," Robert says. "But now everyone is online. Even in the same office, people communicate more with email than in person."

Robert says the effectiveness of remote working depends a lot on the nature of the job. "In the traditional environment, supervisors wanted to see the work as it was being done," he says. "Today, much work is monitored more by the results. The type of work done by knowledge workers lends itself well to being monitored online."

With email, texting, smartphones, conference calls and the like, workers are engaged in virtual ways regardless of where they work. "We are all remote workers," Robert says.

Edinger talked with the Deseret News about the survey results and his blog post at Harvard Business Review in which he speculated on four reasons why remote workers were, well, less remote:

1. Proximity breeds complacency.

"People tell me, 'My manager is down the hall from me, but he might as well be 3,000 miles away," Edinger says. "And I know people whose managers are 3,000 miles away, but they feel very closely connected."

2. Absence makes people try harder to connect.

Edinger says his own experience as a manager with a sales force around the world led him make a more conscious effort to reach out to people he wasn't in the office with. "So I was very conscious to talk with everyone on my team multiple times a week," he says. "And it wasn't just going to be to ask them about their forecast. I was going to talk with them about what was happening in their business and what was happening in their life. … But if someone is down the hall from you, you may not talk to them all day."

3. Leaders of virtual teams make a better use of tools.

Sharon Roux is COO at The Summit Group Communications, a marketing agency in Salt Lake City, and oversees its human resource programs. Roux says The Summit Group makes extra efforts to communicate with its remote workers. The company schedules weekly conference calls and other communication. "You have to make it routine to check in," Roux says, "because you will not run into them at the water cooler."

4. Leaders of far-flung teams maximize the time their teams spend together.

Besides coming in to the company headquarters for an orientation when they are hired, Roux says The Summit Group brings all their workers in once a year for a meeting and morale-building activities.

The Summit Group uses remote workers because it has clients regionally and nationally, Roux says.

"We wanted to establish great relations with our clients," she says, "and that is best done with face-to-face time."

So the agency hired account management people in several large markets in North and South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Michigan. "It works very well," Roux says, "Clients are happy to have someone in their area. And it helped us, being a smaller firm, to gain trust with them."

Another advantage Roux notices is the concept of remote working opens up a larger area for human resources recruitment.

"I can look at other regions at a bigger talent pool," she says. "And it keeps overhead down."

Not one-size-fits-all

Notwithstanding the success with remote workers in other parts of the country, locally The Summit Group doesn't have anyone who works from home (except for the occasional project).

"By and large we expect our people to come in," Roux says.

As Robert says, remote working is not the answer for every job situation and comes with costs.

"It is not a one-size-fits-all solution," he says.

One downside to remote working, according to Robert, is employees don't identify as much with the company.

"A person who comes in every day identifies with the company, has a stronger bond to it and is more likely to engage and support it," he says.

Instead, remote employees (depending upon the type of work done) may identify more with the clients they work with than with the company that pays their salary.

Roux says she has noticed that there is a disadvantage to remote workers if they want to move up in a company. "It helps to be at the headquarters and be seen," she says. "There are no chance meetings in a hallway if you are not there."

But even if employees do not intend on working at home, they like to have that option, Edinger says.

"Offices and headquarters are not going anywhere," Edinger says. "But if you ask people if they want the flexibility to work from home if they wanted to, they jump on it."

"Most people think, 'out of sight, out of mind,'" Edinger says. "The truth is, people who don't work in an office can still thrive."

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