Why Remote Work Can't Be Stopped

When Dell recently surveyed its 110,000 employees about their work habits, it discovered something surprising: While only 17% of Dell's employees were formally authorized to work wherever they prefer, 58% were already working remotely at least one day a week. That's good news, says Steve Price, chief human resources officer at Dell. In 2013, the company had said it wanted half its employees to work remotely for at least part of their week... by 2020.

In contrast, International Business Machines recently gave thousands of its home-based employees a choice: Start working at one of IBM's regional offices or take a hike. IBM once boasted that 40% of its employees work outside traditional offices, it has its own in-house tools to facilitate remote work, and it regularly promotes telework to its clients. Other companies that have reversed course on remote work include Yahoo, Bank of America and Aetna.

Despite these moves by big companies, data indicates that the remote-work trend in the U.S. labor force is inexorable, aided by ever-better tools for getting work done anywhere. Surveys done by Gallup indicate that in 2016, the proportion of Americans who did some or all of their work from home was 43%, up from 39% in 2012. Over the same period, the proportion who only work remotely went to 20% from 15%. Amazon.com, American Express, UnitedHealth Group, and Salesforce.com allow employees to work remotely at least some of the time.

IBM has said it hasn't found remote work saves money. It also said the shift away from remote work isn't aimed at cutting costs -- though inevitably some employees leave as a result. Other companies, though, cite saving on rent among a variety of reasons for letting employees work remotely. They say it also improves employee satisfaction, helping retention and recruiting.

The larger truth is that nearly every company that employs knowledge workers is still learning which jobs can best be done remotely, as the tools to accomplish remote work become increasingly powerful.

Making the transition in a big company isn't easy, Dell's Mr. Price says. What is absolutely essential is getting everyone the right tools. This can be expensive and time consuming, even for companies whose primary purpose is building those tools.

To understand the issues, it's helpful to look at a company that has always been almost entirely remote. Automattic, maker of WordPress, the content-management system that powers 28% of all websites, has 558 employees spread across more than 50 countries, up from 302 in December 2014.

Despite its growth, the company is getting rid of its custom-designed, light-filled, 14,250-square-foot office in a hip San Francisco neighborhood. On an average day, maybe five workers will show up, dwarfed by the cavernous space and nearly outnumbered by the ping-pong and foosball tables that mostly sit idle.

With teams that may be spread across a dozen time zones, Automattic relies on Slack for synchronous communication, Zoom for weekly video conferences and its own internal system of threaded conversations for documenting everyone's work and for major decisions.

When everyone is forced to communicate through these tools, no one is left out, says Mark Armstrong, whose site, Longreads, was acquired by Automattic in 2014. "Everyone knows that feeling where you're the one on the conference call and everyone else is in the room together," he says.

A distributed workforce can have other benefits, says Julia Amosova, a "happiness engineer" at Automattic. The online communication required allows for radical transparency, since anyone in the company can search across all internal communications. "Most of the meetings were held behind closed doors at other places I worked at," she says. "I didn't have the same feeling of unity and inclusion."

Unless you're a pure software company like Automattic, being 100% remote probably isn't an option. Dell isn't planning to get any more of its employees working remotely, Mr. Price says. "Engineering, leadership, R&D, sales and customer support -- those are roles that don't lend themselves very well to remote work. Not everybody gets to do it." Roles where it does work include HR, legal, marketing, analytics, data science and other support functions, he adds.

For workers in an office, collaboration occurs naturally, says Jason Owen-Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan who has studied collaboration and innovation at academic research institutions. His research indicates that for every 100 feet of overlap between the typical daily walking paths of people in a building, there's a 17% increase in the likelihood two researchers who have not previously worked together will collaborate on a new project -- and a 20% increase in the likelihood they will get their project funded.

In one building Dr. Owen-Smith and his team studied, the men's and women's restrooms were at opposite ends of the facility: Same-gender collaborations went up and mixed-gender collaborations were suppressed. Famously, at Pixar, Steve Jobs put the bathrooms in the center of the building, to force people to cross paths multiple times a day.

For remote workers, the communications tools they use daily are the equivalent of these common spaces. The canonical example, owing to its explosive growth and creeping ubiquity, is the group-chat service Slack. It's designed to make it easy for employees to communicate in ways that aren't so different from the way they would around a water cooler or a conference table. Slack's playful features, like on-demand animated GIFs, make it good for collegial interaction, while its library of chatbots and integrations with other enterprise software make it useful as a hub for communicating about and controlling many aspects of a business.

What matters even more than the tools is the process that underlies them, says Jason Fried, co-founder and chief executive of Basecamp, which makes digital project-management and collaboration tools, and the author of "Remote," a book about working remotely. Everyone on a team, remote or not, has to be willing to participate in that process, or else someone will miss out on key information and decisions.

"You have to be committed to this digital transformation, and be ready to invest to do this well," says Dell's Mr. Price. "Otherwise you have a lot of morale issues, engagement issues and a bad cultural response."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 04, 2017 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)