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Back To The Office – Or Not?

Remote work offers big bottom-line savings, but it's not for every business. Some questions to ask before giving up bricks and mortar.

The Covid-19 pandemic was the impetus for a global experiment in remote work, and now many executives are fielding requests from staff about the possibility of a long-term remote work arrangement. According to a recent Gallup poll, three in five U.S. workers want to continue working remotely as social distancing restrictions are lifted.

In 2006, I found the local talent pool coming up short for a certain type of employee. This led me to see if I could find the right fit by expanding my search to include people out of my geographical area. I was impressed by the quality of applicants and I quickly realized that many of the staff for my online business, Doubledot Media, don’t need to be in the local office.

I dipped my toe in the remote waters and started hiring some telecommuters here and there. Then I read the book Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, and it made me a full convert to the value of a remote work environment. Now, more than 30 of my 35 employees work remotely, and this arrangement has been an enormous success for the business: we save money every year on office costs and, more importantly, my staff report really high levels of satisfaction in large part because they telecommute.

But while I’m an advocate of the remote office, I recognize it isn’t for everyone. Offering work-from-home as a serious, long-term option for your team is a major company decision. Here are some questions to consider:

1. What are the downsides?

Identifying the cons of remote work for your team will show you the risks of this arrangement and allow you to conduct a more thorough cost-benefit analysis. What have been some of the challenges or difficulties your team has faced as a result of being physically removed from one another during the pandemic?

Remember that telecommuting during a pandemic is different than telecommuting under normal circumstances. Almost every global industry was impacted by Covid-19, so you can’t use your productivity or sales numbers from this time as a direct reflection of how the telecommuting arrangement will work for your company.

After a series of major earthquakes in Christchurch, NZ, many employees that were forced to telecommute reported isolation from the experience. While employee isolation can be a real risk for remote workers, this could have been related to the emotional toll of a major natural disaster rather than the telecommuting arrangement in general. We might see some of the same impacts from Covid-19. For example, if some of your workers who are parents seem a little less focused or productive during the past few months, it doesn’t mean they don’t thrive in a remote work environment. It’s a lot harder to work from home when your kids aren’t in school or camp.

It’s important to sift out what trends are a result of the pandemic, and which trends are directly related to the team being dispersed and physically distanced. Fostering engagement through communication and culture-building has been one major challenge I’ve faced while managing a remote team. While difficult, the communication challenge is becoming more easily surmountable everyday with improved project management systems. Cybersecurity can also be a concern, and onboarding will look much different with a remote team. These are all obstacles we have faced and successfully surmounted at Doubledot Media.

Executives have to do some digging about the unique challenges their business will face by going remote. Different departments will have different answers, so consult individual supervisors and managers for their input. Your IT department specifically can also offer invaluable insight into the feasibility of a remote arrangement.

2. Can some of your team be in-office while others work remotely?

Working from home is almost universally considered a perk. Offering a major benefit like this to some employees, but not others, might cause backlash, so you need to provide clear and direct reasoning for your decision. This disconnect between your remote team and your non-teleworking employees can cause dissatisfaction and higher turnover for in-office staff, according to one study.

Some of my staff come into an office in Christchurch, while most of my team works remotely. In an effort to balance perks among remote and in-office employees, we create a really fun and playful office culture. We have a wishlist that we are constantly updating, and we have social perks like weekly BBQs and periodic team outings at wineries bowling and ski fields.

3. How will it affect the bottom line?

The cost-benefit analysis of remote work is what sends many companies over the edge to choosing this arrangement—Global Workplace Analytics reports that the average real estate savings for a full-time, telecommuting employee is $10,000 a year. But the cost savings of a remote team are not just limited to reduced office rent and utilities.

Other savings can come as a result of increased productivity and worker satisfaction. That same report from Global Workplace Analytics estimates that unscheduled absences can cost employers up to $1,800 a year per employee. Remote work reduces unscheduled absences. Additionally, the move to remote work can open up opportunities for grants and other free resources, as many governments are encouraging companies to pursue this route. Assessing these financial implications will be an important part of the decision to offer remote work.

Measurable savings for us at Doubledot Media have included reduced power, internet and food costs in our headquarters, where only a few staff members work. Remote staff members have considerable savings themselves, with no travel costs from commute and no travel time in the morning and afternoon. But another major benefit—which we’ve been particularly appreciative of lately—is the ability to maintain nearly perfect work efficiency in the event of a natural disaster or pandemic. Furthermore, if something local happens where we are headquartered in Christchurch, our global customer base remains unaffected because our staff are geographically spread. This also benefits the customer as they is little or no disruption to the service they pay for. We quickly realized that the impact of a remote team on our bottom line was much more than just reduced real estate costs.

Changing Times

Adaptability is key and, globally, this pandemic continues to impact industries everywhere. Leaders have to decide if their teams are ready for a cultural and operational shift of this magnitude. Only executives can decide if permanent remote work is a realistic option for their company.


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