Is remote work dead ?

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Remote work is a hot topic for more and more businesses. Made popular at the beginning by companies that were “young” in terms of age and management style, it was adopted by lots of businesses regardless of industry and age over time. Today there are the businesses that have already adopted it, those thinking about it, those experimenting it but the matter is real and the list of expected benefits is well known, as the possible issues.

The remote work wave is withdrawing in the same way it arrived

However and surprisingly, we can see businesses that have successfully implemented remote work and were even shown as examples moving backwards and asking their employees to come back at the office. And, as strange as it may seem, these businesses are often from the tech industry, the one that was the very early adopter. So Yahoo, IBM, Reddit, Best Buy, Honeywell and others put an end to years of remote work. Facebook still authorize it but gives incentives to employees who settle close to the office. And at Google’s, everything is done to make employee want to come to the office.

So, trend or fad ?

Before going further I’d like to make something clear. There is a huge difference between employees working one or two days a week remotely and those living hundreds or thousands of kilometers from those they work with and never meet them in real. So all remote work policies are not comparable.

Then, if we have a closer look at the most noticeable cases, the context of Yahoo and IBM can explain this move. Theses companies were undergoing deep a deep transformation process either in terms of business and organization and one can think that to drive such changes it’s preferable to having all the employees together so trigger new approaches.

All activities are not equal regarding remote work

One thing is sur : if remote work work (and we have evidences), it’s not as efficient for some tasks than for others (and its effectiveness also depends on the company’s culture and management maturity). But, for an “average” company :

• it’s easy and even easier for anyone to delivery deliver “solo-work” remotely.

• it’s less easy to coordinate remotely (interactions to organize the delivery of several people) and it’s improving.

• remote collaboration is more difficult. It’s not coordination but joint et simultaneous work of several people on a single deliverable.

• it’s complicated to be collaboratively creative remotely.

• It’s very complicated to conduct a deep organization transformation on remote people.

And the truth is that being collaboratively innovative and creative is more and more important for any business and that many businesses are undergoing a deep cultural transformation and it seems that it’s better done with people who physically interact.

Will agile management kill remote work ?

Another point mentioned in this post : it seems that one reason why IBM moved back is the adoption of agile management that requires a lot of face-to-face communication. This argument would mean the end of remote work in most organizations since agile is becoming more and more popular.

But this argument is surprising. Agile has been working in many organization for years with remote people and it’s never been a problem. We have all the communications tools to interact in an agile approach remotely (most of all when your name is IBM) and I’ve never seen anyone complaining about that. In the other hand maybe IBM has evidences and indicators showing a significant performance improvement when agile is face to face but it would mean that businesses that have adopted agile management a long time before big blue should have come to the same conclusion.

No anti-remote work tidal wave

In the end it seems that we are facing isolated cases and not a massive move even if some kinds of work are better done in face-to-face. However I’ll pay attention in the future to agile management : we know that agile works well for project teams but it may possible that adopting agile everywhere in the company, for every department,  employee and at every hierarchical level may come with side effects and be much more demanding than for project teams.

On the contrary, we can also suggest that agile management and the many interactions it requires is a very good way to find isolation and the fear of losing control that often comes with remote work. Going further, we could even say to businesses that fear switching to remote because of a “visual management” culture that agile may be the best model for remote teams.

Bringing employees back to the office has also a price : businesses that resized their facilities because of remote work often have neither the will nor the means to add new square meters. Or maybe they think that such an initiative will lead to painless and costless  staff cut.

Finally we end with the only question that’s worth when considering moving to remote work : remote work is not the matter, what matters is for whom, for what kinds of work and in what organizational approach. And there are very little chances that a one-size-fits-all answer exists.

  • Mr Happy Man

    Here is why working remotely needs to be retained for some roles. Because some metropolitan areas are overcrowded and too expensive for many workers, especially unionized service workers (teachers, nurses, plumbers, carpenters, pipe fitters, and others). If an area has too many upper income workers, that makes the cost of living too expensive, and they leave. That means you need to raise the wage of these workers well above the rest of the country – which brings the real wages of tech workers down, as they are paying a plumber $500 per hour, or faced greatly reduced availability of these essential services – does the highly paid tech worker therefore need to waste time spending all day trying to fix a leaking pipe for his toilet? Or, you can have many experienced workers work remotely, say, Montana – which makes a decent lifestyle affordable for these service workers while keeping real wages high for tech workers. And it will help pump money into our heartland, where it really needs to be.
    For this reason, if the job is one that is one that involves little collaboration, like software development or working in a call center – an experienced worker should be allowed to work remotely. If it requires a lot, then this doesn’t make much sense. It is a win-win for both workers and corporations, but not for some managers, who have to give up the control mentioned in the article.