Is remote-working dead or alive?

Earlier this week, Automattic — the company that owns the WordPress content management system — closed their beautiful San Francisco office after seven years of use. With just a handful of employees using an office space designed for hundreds, it didn’t make sense to keep it open but far from being a story of corporate downturn, the office closure demonstrates the importance and success of Automattic’s remote-working policy.

Automattic’s CEO, Matt Mullenweg, noted that the company was always “fully distributed” from the beginning, so the office closure was no more than a visual demonstration of the free-choice employees were given in their working environment. Employees were given generous stipends to work from wherever they wished; paying for employees coffee supplies if they wanted to work from their local Starbucks, or $250 to use co-working facilities like WeWork. Meetings are routinely held by video and travel always authorised when a face-to-face was deemed necessary. Automattic are a company that understands the financial, creative, productive and emotional value in remote working and uses technology to support their employees.

In 2013, Yahoo made the opposite move, forcing employees back to the office. Yahoo’s HR director stated that “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices”. According to Yahoo, “speed and quality” are often sacrificed when working from home.

IBM, another company with significant heritage in remote-working, announced a significant volte-face in May, requesting that employees return to the offices or quit their jobs. Ars Technica report that cost savings — rather than workplace ideology — are likely behind this move, describing it as a way of laying off thousands of employees who can’t afford to move to IBM locations.

Alive or dead?

So where does this leave the remote-working revolution and with it, digital workplace technologies dedicated to mobility? Is it true that “speed and quality” are truly sacrificed when working from home? With more than 43% of the US workforce working from non-office locations — at least on occasion —  we need to know if remote-working is dead or alive.

I’ve been a remote-worker for almost 15 years while working for a large multi-national and more recently, as an independent consultant. Remote-working does mean that you’re away from colleagues by definition, but it does not mean that you’re remote, that you’re a poor collaborator or that speed and quality are the price you pay for such flexibility. Remote-workers are more productive, more efficient and happier but aligning culture amongst employees who never meet is a real challenge. Without a common, aligned culture, are they really working for the same company or just a worker bee in a collective. Culture, we’re told, is the corporate glue.

How do you give employees and businesses the benefits of remote-working without detriment to the culture that makes us feel like we’re working for the same organisation? Digital workplace technologies are the enabler for productivity as well, potentially, as the answer to the culture conundrum. Elastic software CEO Shay Banon notes that when employees don’t know each other, and their only interactions digital and non-visual, “disputes can blow up very quickly. If you don’t see facial expressions, you miss cues”. To counter this, Elastic maintains a constant video channel so that employees can go and “chat it out”.

With labour shortages predicted for many developed nations resulting in true distance working, with office space increasing in costs, with the demands for flexibility from millennials and other demographics, we don’t think that remote-working is dead, but we do think that businesses will have to redouble efforts to create cohesive culture and singular employee digital experiences. That way, everyone wins.

TL;DR Summary

  • Some companies are reversing their remote-working policies but it’s not clear if this is for operational or financial reasons
  • Remote-working has positive productivity, efficiency and happiness impacts
  • Building company culture with remote workers is a challenge for leadership
  • Digital workplace tools can be the productivity and culture enabler