Back to the Future: The Return of Remote Workers

A funny thing happened on the way to the workplace. People stopped going to the workplace – at least those whose employers offered the option to work remotely. Key factors that drove companies to experiment with remote work in the first place included:

• Improve employee motivation and satisfaction
• Reduce office space, parking, and travel costs
• Decrease absenteeism

Guess what? It worked! Today, remote work has become part of many corporate cultures. However, for a growing number of companies, remote workers are baaaaaaaaaaack! Back to the office, that is.

According to the Wall Street Journal, IBM, Aetna, and others have ended or curtailed their remote work programs. IBM’s decision is particularly ironic given that they introduced many of the technologies, such as collaboration software, that made remote work possible and practical. Regardless, the key reasons that these and other Fortune 500 companies offer for corralling their employees back to bricks and mortar include:

• Foster face-to-face collaboration
• Inspire innovation
• Increase productivity

And, guess what? This is working too!

Now hear me out. I’m not saying that the days of remote working are over. Far from it. Recent Gallup research indicates that more Americans are working remotely than 5 years ago. However, an increasing number of companies are reversing the trend by bringing workers “back inside”

Welcome Back.
Let’s be honest. Many people love the flexibility of working from home, and don’t welcome the thought of returning back to the perceived confines of the cubicle. Therefore, employers need to make the “new workplace” as welcoming as possible.

Of course many remote workers would also admit to the limitations of working from home. Some have come to realize that actual face time with their managers is crucial to their careers. Email, video conferencing and teleconferences don’t always allow for supervisors to witness their achievements, thereby limiting opportunities for employee recognition. Additionally, many remote workers, especially millennials, prefer the comraderie afforded by an office environment, as well as the opportunity to mentor and be mentored by their supervisors.

Bottom line: Remote workers should make the best of returning to the workplace, and employers should provide a workplace that brings out the best in them.

Employee Engagement Is the Name of the Game.
Why? Because the nature of work – and the worker—has changed.

The “New Workplace”
Today, work doesn’t take place in isolation – at least not successful work. It’s highly collaborative – especially when it comes to generating innovative ideas that create competitive advantage. Numerous studies show that the more coworkers’ paths overlap, the more likely they are to form new collaborations which spawn innovation. Steve Jobs understood this concept. At Pixar he wanted to encourage more unplanned meetings by, among other things, putting all bathrooms in the building’s center atrium and none in the wings – just so people had to cross paths several times a day. (Fortunately someone talked Steve off the ledge on that idea, but it’s the thought that counts.)

Later, at Apple, Jobs realized that having thousands of employees spread out at 100-plus sites didn’t foster the collaboration necessary for innovation. Hence he pushed for a new campus to house nearly 13,000 employees in a futuristic circular design that would practically force people to walk around and interact with colleagues in person. The hoped-for result: chance encounters that might result in generating breakthrough ideas.

The benefits of in-person collaboration aren’t limited to high tech companies or offices in general. It’s just as beneficial in manufacturing. According to the Aberdeen Group, best-in-class manufacturing organizations that promote collaboration among product design, operations, logistics and other departments outperform those who don’t. The results:
• Higher operating margins
• More uptime
• Quicker new product introductions

Granted, not all work is collaborative. There are always projects that require an individual’s undivided attention. And managers need the privacy of an office or conference room for confidential meetings such as performance reviews or job interviews. However, new workplace layouts that acknowledge the changing face of work can easily accommodate the need for open space, collaboration areas and closed-doors.

The “New Worker”
Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) are here in force. Today, a third of all working-age people are millennials and will make up as much as 75% of the U.S. workforce by 2025.  What do we know about them? Plenty.
• They’re extremely tech savvy.
• They’re more collaborative.
• They prefer team spaces and communal areas over conventional offices and meeting rooms.

Therefore…

Tear Down Those Walls!
As remote employees return, transforming the workplace into an environment that measurably improves employee engagement and productivity is essential. To attract and retain today’s best and brightest, you need a work space that appeals to their preferences for open, communal areas over isolated offices. Progressive companies are redesigning their workplaces accordingly:

• Replacing walled-in areas with open floor plans
• Where there still need to be walls, using glass instead of solid partitions – creating an open, more transparent, environment with a sense of community
• Adding common areas, team rooms and break-out spaces – even lounges and dining spaces – where people can get together on the spur of the moment and exchange ideas

Physical and aesthetic design should stimulate spontaneous discussion, thereby spurring innovation that may not have occurred otherwise.

Use the Space.
That’s what they tell theater students. Well, the same applies to the workplace. You have all these walls and surfaces in corridors, common areas and elevators. These spaces are perfect for installing corporate displays, video walls, and information kiosks to bolster employee communications.

Open floor plans are ideal for workplace digital signage. Visual communication such as infographics, video or data visualization of KPIs is a great way to inform and engage employees. Whether the objective is to raise awareness of your company’s culture, corporate philanthropy, workplace safety or health and wellness, make sure to maximize these spaces to welcome back returning remote workers.

Back to the Future.
Returning remote workers to the office may seem like a trip back to a past era, but it’s really the new wave. Companies that pursue this strategy are indeed going back to the future.

Barry Lee Cohen
August 25, 2017

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