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Remote Workers Feel Productive but Also Guilty

Videoconferencing, other collaborative tools help at-home employees build work relationships

A woman is working on her laptop at home.

​People who work remotely tend to feel guilty about doing so—believing that their managers and colleagues view them as lazy and out of touch, according to a recent survey. But that same research shows that remote workers feel exceptionally productive and, with the help of technology, have close ties with their in-office colleagues.

Nearly 2 in 3 survey respondents who work remotely say they are more productive now than when they worked onsite at a company. The research was conducted by San Jose, Calif.-based Polycom Inc., which provides voice, video and content collaboration tools, and New York City-based Future Workplace, an HR executive network and research firm. Researchers surveyed more than 25,000 workers for their study, The Human Face of Remote Working.

Nearly 3 in 4 respondents say the arrangement helps them with work/life balance. More than one-third say they work remotely to care for their children. The survey was conducted in December 2016. Data were collected from 25,234 employees across 12 countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed held the title of manager or higher. Sixty-eight percent were parents.

Productivity Perception

Respondents across all job levels reported that the biggest advantage of remote work was the ability to get more work done. "What we found across the board, from CEOs to junior-level staff, is that the biggest advantage was that they were more productive," said Billie Hartless, chief human resources officer at Polycom.

Yet a large majority of remote workers (62 percent) say they're afraid that their onsite colleagues don't think they are working as hard as them. 

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements]

"One of the frequent misconceptions of remote workers is that they're lazy, want to take it easy and prefer not to make the trip into the office," said Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace and co-author of The Future Workplace Experience: 10 Rules for Mastering Disruption in Recruiting and Engaging Employees (McGraw-Hill Education, 2017). "The reality is quite different. Remote workers often share that they can't easily 'turn off' work because their home office is often steps away from their bedroom. Remote workers also believe they're actually more productive working remotely, as they can begin their day earlier and end later with no office commute."

The average commute to work in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, is about 30 miles round trip, or roughly half an hour. But in major metropolitan areas, the time it takes to get to and from work is going to be "double that," Hartless said.

"Commuting takes valuable time out of your day," she said. "We have found that by removing an hour or two of commute time a day, five days a week, that's more than a full day workers retrieve to complete projects." 

Collaborative Tools Help Workers Know Colleagues Better

Globally, 3.7 million employees (2.8 percent of the workforce) now work from home at least half of the time, Meister said. In the Polycom-Future Workplace study, 32 percent of respondents said they regularly work remotely at least two to three days a week.

Remote workers told surveyors that they thought they could overcome the fear of being viewed as unproductive if their companies invested more in collaborative technology, the report authors wrote.

"With videoconferencing, workers are more likely to bring their full selves to the meeting, making it difficult, if not impossible, to multitask" during a meeting, Meister said. "I believe videoconferencing makes it easier to truly listen, stay present and demonstrate empathy in working with team members."

Nearly all of the respondents (98 percent) said that collaborative technologies make it easier to get to know and to build relationships with co-workers. Nearly half said that they know colleagues better on a personal level thanks to videoconferencing.

Other collaborative technologies that can be used in the workplace include Slack, a cloud-based messenger service that also enables file-sharing; Salesforce Chatter, an internal social network; and VMware Socialcast, a collaboration platform with social and video content management components.

Two-thirds of respondents said their favorite colleagues work in a different location.

"I am based out in Austin [Texas], and my best work colleague is based in San Jose," Hartless said. "The distance doesn't affect us or our relationship. We still have 'virtual coffee breaks' and are able to keep up with the 'watercooler moments' through meeting over video." 

Employer Benefits

Much of the research on remote working focuses on the benefits to the remote worker. But there are also significant benefits for the employer, Meister said. One benefit is better access to talented workers.

"Remote working is increasingly viewed as a business strategy to attract and retain talent rather than a personal benefit for employees," Meister said.

American Express is saving up to $15 million a year in real estate costs thanks to remote working, Meister said. The company provides training for remote employees and their managers, as well as toolkits and guided discussions on how to be a remote worker and how to lead a remote workforce.

At Aetna Insurance, 47 percent of the workforce works remotely, Meister said, which saves the company more than $70 million a year in real estate, utility and housekeeping costs. The insurance giant also reports that allowing people to work remotely is a key retention tool: The company's annual voluntary turnover for those who work remotely is 2 to 3 percent, while turnover for those who don't work remotely is about 8 percent, Meister said.

"Remote workers tend to take less sick leave," Meister said. "Remote workers also have fewer distractions and report they can accomplish more in the same amount of time. An interesting finding from Gallup is that employees working from home log four more hours per week than their office counterparts. And because of this increased flexibility, remote workers are more likely to spread their work throughout the day, from starting work earlier to working after business hours."    

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