A sophisticated array of technologies has emerged to meet employers' and remote employees' needs for secure, productive ways to get work done.
In addition to videoconferencing programs, file-sharing platforms, and project management and time-tracking tools, new adaptive analytics and secure data-access technologies are helping employees who work from home, coworking spaces or other locations outside the office.
Zachary Chertok, lead human capital management research analyst at the Aberdeen Group, sees analytics and secure data access as key developments supporting remote work.
Only five years ago, he said, many remote workers started each day with the time-consuming "prework" of prioritizing their daily tasks—decisions often disconnected from whatever was happening at the main office. With adaptive analytics, companies input contract data so that remote employees can log in to a system that has arranged accounts and tasks for them. Artificial intelligence and advanced analytics enable field employees to access the corporate work environment as if they were in the office.
"[Advanced analytics] are basically able to prioritize my workload for me, day in and day out," Chertok said.
At the same time, secure data access—including virtual private networks, electronic signing, locked PDFs, "read" time stamps and secure messaging—is "making management more comfortable with the remote work environment," he said.
How much employers use remote work varies. Some let employees work at home a day or two a week, and others operate with entirely distributed, or remote, staffs.
Travel-heavy industries, such as consulting, advising, field sales and onsite service delivery, depend on these tools to get work done and manage their remote workforce, Chertok said.
"Where for some industries this relationship might be intuitive, modern resources for remote management are bridging the gap between the in-office experience and the remote workplace, particularly for operational staff. … Today's remote work environment is proving productive even in collaboration-based industries," he added, noting that in computer science, health care management and product engineering, groups can now collaborate as if in person even when not physically together.
Gallup found in 2016 that more employees were spending more time working away from the office:
"You can work from anywhere and are often more productive in doing so," Chertok said, adding that various studies have shown that organizations are more productive and profitable when employees focus more on customers rather than internal meetings or rigid training schedules.
Social media account management software firm Buffer, remote workplace crowdsourcing site Workfrom, and remote workforce software provider Hubstaff published a 2018 report, based on data from more than 1,900 remote workers worldwide, which stated that nearly 90 percent of those who ran their own company had always planned on supporting remote work.
Hubstaff co-founder Dave Nevogt, whose firm's 42 employees all work remotely, sees "huge" benefits to a distributed workforce.
"Most importantly, you have a world of talent to choose from versus a localized area. This opens you up to getting people that are truly specialists at what they do, which in many cases can make the difference of a business' succeeding or failing," Nevogt told SHRM Online.
A company in rural North Dakota might not have much local access to Ruby on Rails developers, Nevogt said, "but you know that Ruby on Rails is the best technology to build your platform on. So you can start the business without the best technology or hire a remote team. In this example, it's always going to be best to hire a remote team with an in-depth knowledge of the best technology."
Nevogt sees communication, project management and time-tracking technology as the key remote-work technologies now.
Communication tools such as video and chat allow a team, regardless of location, to work together as if they're in the same office, he noted. "In many cases, teams in the same city are finding it much more effective to use these technologies than to go into an office," he added.
Project management tools help teams communicate while working more effectively on their own time, and help managers handle project prioritization and documentation, Nevogt said. Time-tracking tools allow companies to understand how much time various projects take, determine profitability, and pay employees and invoice clients accurately, he said.
Chertok thinks adaptive analytics is the top resource trend. While communication, project management and time tracking are key metrics that help companies understand if remote work is succeeding, he said agile, real-time analytics can help HR and management assess an array of factors that affect performance, including worker reliability in a remote setting.
"If we jump to the metrics without a real-time understanding of the context behind them, we will make hasty and poor decisions that will wind up casting out would-be good employees," he said.
Advanced analytics technology adapts to the way employees work each day and can even use employee onboarding information to personalize training and suggest career paths, Chertok explained.
Secure data access, meanwhile, gives employers greater assurance that sensitive information won't leave the company without a data trail to track it, and allows management to turn secure access on and off from a dashboard, he noted.
"Secure data access is often swept under the rug in discussing the remote workforce. The truth is that remote work opportunities cannot exist without securing internally sensitive information. Especially in services industries and management-level employee classifications, the data being handled is proprietary and requires mutual trust between employees and the employer," Chertok said.
As the market evolves, he expects to see an increase in workflow automation and platform-as-a-service, or PAAS, which unifies data and converts it to a centralized analytics language run on one platform.
Relying on five separate solutions is a headache for a remote employee, Chertok said, explaining that there's already a rise in workflow automation that brings everything under one user experience.
Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance journalist and writer based in Philadelphia.