Life Without Pants - The Truth About Remote Working


In the last decade, as the reality of remote working and global business pressed on teams, leaders faced a tough choice. How do you maintain high standards for productivity when everyone doesn’t have to be in the same office? How do you keep teams collaborating when they are no longer forced to physically work together? For many, the solution was to ban remote working. Pantsless sales reps ditching conference calls seemed like a foregone conclusion. But as remote working became popular, companies either caved or lost out on talent. Fast forward to today and the number of remote workers is still growing rapidly.

“In 2012, Gallup data showed that 39% of employees worked remotely in some capacity, meaning they spent at least some of their time working in a location different from that of their coworkers. In 2016, that number grew by four percentage points to 43%.” - Gallup

The good news is that most of our dire predictions about remote working don’t seem to be coming true, or at least not the way we thought they would.  

People who WFH are productive AF

Recent research says that remote workers may be more productive than their cubicle dwelling peers. 91% of remote workers feel more productive than when they’re in the office. Even though we thought it would be one big slack-fest, it’s easy to understand how this isn’t true. Offices are noisy, distracting places. The kind of work that many of us do now - solo, computer based, means that pretty much anywhere your team isn’t may be more conducive to getting things done. In a world where PowerPoint is the predominant method of communicating ideas, who cares where, when, and how the quarterly report gets made, or if you wore pants when you made it?

Teams can still be innovative

Marissa Mayer once famously banned WFH in an attempt to turn around Yahoo. Mayer said of the decision, people are “ ...more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” Yahoo’s performance remained disappointing through her tenure, up to her exit following the sale to Verizon for $4.48 billion. This policy didn’t save Yahoo and it earned her the title of ‘least likable’ CEO in tech.

But did she have a point about innovation? Innovation comes from the intersection of ideas, so how do you keep that spark without being in the same place?

Luckily, IDEO shed new light on this whole ‘innovation has to be done in person’ problem. After studying over 100 companies, they found that the most innovative companies actually had a higher population of remote workers. Being innovative was more about culture than proximity. A strong, innovative culture both makes leaders more open to a remote situation and fuels ideas regardless of location.

People are more engaged...kind of

Leaders worried employee engagement would fall off a cliff, but for the most part this isn’t the case. For those that still spend some time in the office, it actually improves engagement. Autonomy to do your work and increased flexibility is the perfect recipe for an engagement boost. Take a call, finish your project, throw in a load of laundry, and still see your team a couple days a week? Perfect. For many knowledge workers, it’s the ideal arrangement.

But an interesting thing happens to those who work remotely 100% of the time: engagement drops again.

The line between partially remote and fully remote is admittedly a fine one. What’s the point of commuting two days versus one or none when all the work is still getting done?

As we mentioned in a previous article, the point is people.

What starts as a refreshing change of pace can quickly start feeling like solitary confinement. Working home alone can cause employees to gradually disappear from the minds of leaders, and vise versa. When interactions can't happen, it affects happiness, collaboration, and ultimately team performance.

In this case, Tony Hsieh may have been right. Working alone can be harmful, both to our own well-being and that of the team.

What to do?

If you’re still struggling over your own WFH policies, there’s no ideal prescription. In the end you have to do what you think is best for your team. But based on the research we have, here are some things to consider:

In many situations, remote working can make life better for your employees.
Innovation can still happen, if it's already happening.
They will be productive, but they’ll also put food in the Crock-Pot.
If they are working alone 100% of the time, they will get lonely.
Teams who interact regularly are better than teams that don’t.

Regardless of the arrangements that work best for you, it’s important to bring teams together in the same space at some point. How you do that and how often is something you’ll have to figure out.

Looking for ideas on what to do when you’re together? We got you covered here. Want to make sure your teams are still engaged? We got that covered too. Dive is our new card deck for leaders. It gives you a pulse on your team engagement and surfaces warning signs in a tenth of the time it takes to create a survey.