Successful remote work needs more than letting employees work from home

As the Founder and CEO of Distribute, a virtual organisational development think tank and consulting firm, Laurel Farrer is an internationally-renowned thought leader on the topic of remote work. For the past 15 years, she has been unlocking the power of distributed workforces to create impact in corporate and socio-economic infrastructures. 

She collaborates with global businesses and governments on three primary topics: how to convert business operations from physical to virtual, how to build products and content for the remote work market, and how to leverage workplace flexibility to solve global concerns. She is a regular Forbes contributor and has also been showcased by the BBC and New York Times.

How has the pandemic impacted work and the workplace? Do you think these trends are here to stay or are we set to return to the old normal?

Telecommuting has existed for half of a century and was growing in popularity due to accessibility of mobile technology. But the overall volume of remote workers was still relatively low — only 3%-5% of workforces in developed countries. Then, in early 2020, every business in every industry throughout every continent was unexpectedly pushed to adopt a work-from-home operational model. This expanded the adoption, credibility, and popularity of virtual-first ways of working into a phase of hypergrowth that exceeded anyone’s expectations, even those of use that were international thought leaders and advocates. Current data predicts that at least 40% of the US workforce will continue to have access to workplace flexibility at least part-time after the pandemic. There currently isn’t a strong and credible source for global data on the topics but it’s safe to say that hybrid workforces and workplace flexibility are now a permanent part of the “new normal” in “advanced economies” like North America, EMEA, and Asia. 

Current data predicts that at least 40% of the US workforce will continue to have access to workplace flexibility at least part-time after the pandemic.

Can we identify differences by countries, cultures, sectors, generations in the way they are transitioning to new ways of working?

Absolutely. Each country was prepared in varying degrees to unexpectedly support work-from-home models in their local populations due to a variety of factors, such as power and internet infrastructures, rate of multi-generational households, political climates, and employment laws. Those same factors not only influence the short-term viability of remote work on a regional level, but also the long-term adoption of it, and that’s what we’re watching happen now. Some countries are adapting very quickly and easily adopting more workplace flexibility in their cultural norms and legislative agendas, while others are resistant. 

How can companies transitioning to a hybrid environment ensure they are future-ready through a sustainable transformation while learning to retain talent?

It’s critical for companies to understand that successful remote work requires more than just letting your employees work from home. Sustainable change management requires updates to the digital infrastructure, performance measurement systems, talent acquisition funnel, safety and liability policies, and more. Only after this conversion can employees truly operate in the “location irrelevant” way that hybrid models demand. If companies want to keep their employees — and keep them happy — in this competitive job market, their future relationship with remote work is not an “if,” it should be a “how”. Then, make the proper investment to work with a consultancy to update their operations for virtual organizational development. If needed, more details are in this Forbes article that I wrote.

If companies want to keep their employees -- and keep them happy -- in this competitive job market, their future relationship with remote work is not an "if," it should be a "how".

What skills/technologies should a company promote and reward to adapt to a new work environment? What is the best way to achieve that goal?

For compatibility with remote work, every employee should be training on 3 critical components: 1) self-management skills necessary for increased autonomy, 2) technical skills necessary to navigate all software in the company’s digital infrastructure, and 3) soft skills (emotional intelligence) necessary for building professional relationships without proximity and visual cues. Your company’s learning and development team should audit its existing training curriculum to confirm that it contains all three elements, then supplement or update as needed.

Can you think of a company/organisation/country which you consider a trailblazer in this respect?

There are so many great examples to follow in the remote work community — companies like Microsoft and Dell have supported telecommuting and workplace flexibility for decades, GitLab was recently the first officeless company to go public, Spain was one of the first countries to take action on designing remote work laws, vendors like Remote and Deel are enabling employer conversion, the list goes on and on. So, it just depends on what area of “trailblazing” you want to celebrate most. 

What do you think of the emerging competition between regions and countries to attract this new breed of smart workers? Will it be positive from a common good perspective?

We’ve seen great success with early (pre-pandemic) prototypes of programs that are leveraging virtual jobs to stimulate economic development. I was a designer and strategist for many of those early initiatives and a fervent advocate for their positive impact. However, many of those were successful primarily due their novelty and private funding, which are now dwindling advantages. In order for new programs to be successful, they’ll have to adapt in order to compete. So, I predict that we’ll see a rising trend of municipal marketing that evolves over time to accommodate new taxation, immigration, and tourism laws as they roll out. 

How do we leverage the workplace flexibility and technology to solve global concerns?

In fact, the conversion of physical jobs into virtual roles can support at least 14 of the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Let me quote a recent article I wrote in Forbes on that topic. 

  1. Economic Development: when workers are geographically dispersed, so is their impact on communities, industry innovation, and the global economy. 
  2. Environmental Sustainability: Remote jobs create less waste and shorter commutes, which mean lighter carbon footprints. If workplace independence were adopted by more businesses to earn B Corp certification worldwide, the impact to earth justice would be staggering. 
  3. Diversity and Inclusion: Equal remote work earns equal opportunity. Remote-friendly companies often use results-based tracking models to measure the performance of their workers. Consequently, traditional discriminatory factors like race, age, gender, and family status are reduced or eliminated in virtual workplaces
  4. Work-Life Satisfaction: Flexible workforces are safer emotionally, socially, physically, and mentally. Less demand to commute to a centralised office results in less sick days, lower stress levels, stronger family dynamics, healthier meal preparation, reduced mental health triggers, higher exercise rates, more community interaction etc.

The conversion of physical jobs into virtual roles can support at least 14 of the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

What are the new challenges/opportunities for organisations/public authorities in this new emerging environment?

Let me quote a recent article I wrote on the business advantage of remote work. The difference between allowing and adopting remote work lies in the company’s understanding of the ripple effects of workplace transformation. A sustainable change management process encompasses these categories: 

  1. Workforce – Virtual collaboration requires a different skillset than in-office work. This includes adaptations to all elements of the employment lifecycle.
  2. Management – Without the ability to physically supervise, many managers are worried about how to measure the productivity of their workforces. In a virtual work environment, monitoring the wellness and output requires different tools, habits, and training. 
  3. Culture – If unprepared for the transition or neglected while working remotely, workers often succumb to isolation and burnout, which inhibits productivity and retention. 
  4. Workplace – It is essential that employers collaborate with employees to ensure their home office conditions have adequate features to support sustainable health and productivity.
  5. Infrastructure – An incomplete software stack can hinder productivity and output for virtual teams. It’s critical that each company carefully identifies tools that match the habits and culture of their team.
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