Smart Leaders Don’t Just Tolerate Distributed Work; They Embrace It

Working RemotelyOne of my earliest studies of work patterns indicated that on average knowledge workers were spending only about 35 percent of their work time inside their assigned corporate facility. They were spending almost as much time working out of home offices, and the remainder in “Third Places” like coffee shops, libraries, public parks, hotels, airports, and planes, trains, and automobiles.

Today, according to Forrester Research, more than thirty-four million U.S. workers are spending one or more days a week in nontraditional work locations. That’s over 24 percent of a nonfarm workforce that currently totals approximately 140 million. Forrester predicts that by the end of 2016 the distributed workforce could reach 63 million, or over 40% of the total nonfarm workforce. And it’s worth pointing out that many agricultural workers are also highly dependent on mobile technologies, even if we don’t normally think of them as part of the “remote” workforce.

Why is workforce mobility growing so rapidly and becoming the accepted way of working in so many industries?

In my view it’s not enough to point to the incredible explosion of personal, mobile computing devices (laptops, tablets, smartphones) and the infrastructure that supports them. WiFi has become nearly, if not totally, ubiquitous, and it is the price of being in business for most airports, hotels, and coffee shops, as well as public libraries, parks, and mass-transit systems.

But while the technology certainly enables workforce mobility, it is basic economics and employee preferences that are driving its explosive growth. Most people are thrilled to avoid those long commutes. One newly-remote worker told me, “I used to spend twenty dollars every couple of days on gas. Now it’s more like twenty dollars every two weeks.”

Another new remote worker told me that staying home several days a week had helped her lose ten pounds in just two months:

Instead of sitting in my car on the freeway for an hour every morning, I take a thirty-minute walk before sitting down to work. And I’m eating healthy food from my own kitchen instead of running out to a fast-food place for lunch.

My research over the past 10 years confirms that a flexible workplace strategy and an aggressive remote/distributed work program can reduce workforce support costs by 40% or more.

That is not an exaggeration. The biggest and most obvious source of those reductions is real estate and corporate facilities costs. Companies like Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Macquarie Bank, and Panduit Corporation, along with government agencies like the General Services Administration of the U.S. federal government, have reduced their investments in real estate and facilities by up to 50 percent, in some cases driving costs down by $50 million or more per year.

But there are other, more subtle workforce support cost-saving opportunities that go well beyond real estate and facilities. In almost every infrastructure area, from IT to HR to Administrative Support, remote/mobile workers generally operate more independently and need less support than do traditional office-based workers. In order to survive “in the field” remote workers have to learn to work on their own, and to solve their support problems quickly and inexpensively.

The bottom line on distributed work is that it reinforces the idea of treating employees like the responsible adults that most of them are. Remote employees quickly become self-managed employees. They take responsibility for their own work and the outcomes they produce, or they fall by the wayside.

I have also seen data showing that remote employees are significantly more engaged with their company and its mission than their peers who are required to be in the corporate facility every day.

That may seem counterintuitive, but when you think about it, the company is telling remote employees that it trusts them to make the right decisions about where, when, and how to get their work done. And they repay that trust with harder work, more emotional engagement, and a stronger commitment to their employer. Furthermore, most of them put in more effort because they don’t want to lose the benefits of working from home.ideas

All of that is why smart organizational leaders aggressively embrace flexible work programs. They know flexible work is a good deal for the company; a potential 40% cost reduction with more highly engaged employees is more than a little compelling!

And it’s a good deal for the workforce too – less time and less cost commuting, much better work-life integration, and the knowledge that your company considers you a responsible adult. Also very compelling!

Smart leaders know how to make working conditions matter. One of the best ways to increase productivity and employee engagement at the same time is to set up and promote a flexible work program. It’s the best way I know to make work both productive and popular.

Contact me today for a free 30-minute conversation about how you can make distributed work and virtual teams both productive and popular. Please download this brief overview of my new service offering for making meetings matter to explore what’s possible.

Note: This post is largely excerpted from my forthcoming book, Making Meetings Matter: How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age. Follow that link to visit the book’s website, where you can sign up for advance notes about the book, download other excerpts, connect with other readers, and participate in my ongoing research about what makes for a good conversation.