Don't Write the Obituary on Remote Work Just Yet

On Thursday morning, I woke up to an email from LinkedIn with this click-worthy subject line: "Why remote working will die."

Now, as a remote worker myself, reading an email like this from my former employer (even in mass-mailer form) felt vaguely threatening. After all, remote workers fear three things above all else:

  1. Choking on our soup alone during our solo lunch hour;
  2. Suddenly standing up during a video conference call when we elected not to wear pants; and
  3. Getting called back to the cubical.

Remember the "bald-headed killer bear" in the John Candy classic The Great Outdoors whose thirst for human blood cannot be quenched?

Well, remote workers — myself included — can often relate.

Not so much to the whole blood thing (I get squeamish at the sight of a syringe), but rather to the bigger concept: 

once you’ve had a taste of how great something can be, it’s hard to imagine ever going back. 

And that was my exact sentiment after clicking the headline and reading the post that inspired it: Jerry Useem’s article in the November 2017 issue of The Atlantic titled, “When Working From Home Doesn’t Work.”

The article centers on IBM’s March 2017 announcement that the tech stalwart will retract its long-standing work-from-home policy for an undefined number of the approximately 150,000 IBM-ers working remotely worldwide. Useem’s argument — that IBM’s decision hints at the future of remote work as a trend without much of a future at all — spawned some controversy. As I write this, over 4,000 professionals have weighed in on the discussion on LinkedIn, with a true mixed-bag of opinions.  

Some stand by telecommuting as the future of the workforce. Others believe the feasibility of remote work depends entirely on the requirements of the job and preferences of the employee. Still, a surprising majority agreed with Useem’s argument that though studies show remote work increases productivity, engagement, and retention, IBM suffers from an inescapable glitch in telecommuting: the lack of an innate collaboration stemming from a group of professionals working together in close proximity.

“For jobs that mainly require interactions with clients (consultant, insurance salesman) or don’t require much interaction at all (columnist), the office has little to offer besides interruption,” Useem writes. “But other types of work hinge on what might be called ‘collaborative efficiency’—the speed at which a group successfully solves a problem. And distance seems to drag collaborative efficiency down. Why? The short answer is that collaboration requires communication. And the communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest, and highest bandwidth connection is—for the moment, anyway—still the office.”

To demonstrate his point, Useem cites a number of supportive studies — including the non-verbal communication of pilots in a cockpit — and striking evidence, such as research conducted by UC Irvine professor Judith Olson that found significant productivity boosts through close-knit collaborative efforts at Ford Motors. In all, the article does a fine job of making a case for face-to-face collaboration and subsequently painting an ominous portrait of the future of remote work.

But, in my opinion, there’s one glaring flaw in Useem’s viewpoint on the future of remote work: 

it never questions whether companies today have any say in the matter. 

Useem never quite acknowledges the idea that remote work arrangements may be an unstoppable force driving the future of where and how businesses operate.

Because here’s the truth: 75 percent of millennials want to telecommute at least part-time. In fact, according to Deloitte, “flexibility” tied to work location and hours is one of the top-three most important considerations for millennials exploring new opportunities — more important than societal impact, their perception of the company, and even a sense of meaning derived from their work. 

in other words: millennials care more about when and where they work than the actual work itself.

Now, at this point, you might be saying to yourself: Just because millennials want to work remotely doesn’t mean companies need to oblige.

But, reality may be the complete opposite. 70 percent of recruiters believe the 2017 talent landscape is candidate-driven, with 83 percent of employers saying a shortage of tech talent had cost their business lost revenue, slow product development, and employee burnout. Competition for talent — particularly in tech — has long-resulted in companies assembling increasingly-generous (and creative) perks packages to entice the best-of-the-best to join their organization. When IBM’s remote workforce hit its peak in 2009, telecommuting was just that: a nice perk to help them compete for talent against the neverending pool of Googles and Facebooks and Airbnbs that had begun scooping up top talent with promises of ping-pong and happy hour beer carts. (not to mention the chance to work on revolutionary new products and services).

But for today’s workforce — 50 percent of which will be millennials in the next three years — telecommuting is less a perk and more a qualifier for considering new opportunities. Adam Kingl, the executive director of thought leadership at London Business School, put it perfectly when he told Fast Company that remote work should be viewed as “a criterion that people are expressly looking for before they’ll sign on the dotted line..not a perk or reward.”

Useem draws parallels between IBM and two other tech giants — Apple and Google — who historically have resisted remote work arrangements for their employees. You could easily add Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to this list, too. None of these companies ever needed to offer remote work arrangements to entice top talent. But again, times have changed — look where working for a prestigious company like Apple or Google falls on the spectrum of importance for millennials today:

So, to me, IBM’s move reads like a last-ditch effort to emulate talent hives like Google and course correct on 19 straight quarters of missed earnings — not some thoughtful, forward-thinking restructure that forebodes the end of remote work. Yahoo! made a similar fourth-quarter push to reel in remote workers in 2013, but it wasn’t enough to save them.

It’s too early to know exactly how IBM’s decision will impact the company’s ability to attract and retain talent. IBM declined to say what percentage of the remote workforce would be forced to report back to the office. An article by Quartz highlights just one team impacted by the decision — IBM’s marketing team — with a headcount around 5,500 people (a little over 1 percent of IBM’s workforce).   

But, regardless of how things turn out for IBM, I think the bigger point to be made here is that remote work isn’t dead. Telecommuting hasn’t reached a “high water mark” as Useem puts it. As long as the market demand for strong talent permits candidates to be more “choosy” about where they work, the trend toward telecommuting will continue up and to the right. Admittedly, that’s a vulnerable position to be in — the job market could flip at any time to being more employer-driven.

But, in the meantime, remote workers like me can rest easy knowing there won’t be any mass migration back to the office anytime soon. We’re safe.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my soup is ready. 

about the author

Zack Andersen - Freelance Content Writer

After three years in recruiting and two with LinkedIn, I recently embarked on a new adventure with my wife and one-year-old son to travel the world while building my content creation business, ZackWrites.com. I'm excited to share my journey and the insights I learn along the way with the Randstad community.

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