Silicon Valley startup GitLab, which is valued at more than $1 billion, has made headlines as a remote workplace for all 700 of its employees. While an outlier, the move is part of a broader trend, in which an estimated 4.6% of U.S. workers work from home, up 115% from 2007.
With the potential to upend human resources, workplace and social relationships, transportation, and even urban development patterns, will telecommuting become the wave of the future?
Shaun Pichler, associate editor of the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Cal State Fullerton Mihaylo College management professor, anticipates more opportunities for flexible work arrangements, but says telecommuting might not be best for every company.
“I absolutely see increased opportunities for flexible work arrangements, such as remote work, as a good thing,” says Pichler. “When workers are allowed choice about how, when or where to do their work, they are motivated, healthy and productive.”
The ethos and values of top management are essential in determining whether a company’s culture will align with flexible arrangements.
“Culture can be positive or negative when it comes to flexible work arrangements, such as telework or remote work. To be successful, the firm’s culture must be supportive of such arrangements,” he says. “Some organizations, such as Amazon, are notorious for a culture of overworking and aren’t conducive to flexible arrangements even if they are offered, in large part due to their cultures.”
“Culture comes from leaders. Jeff Bezos is famous for having called work-life balance ‘debilitating,’” says Pichler. “But culture goes the other way too, in that for remote work to be effective, support from top management is essential for buy-in, as is support from line managers who are leading remote workers.”
With the increased need to crowdsource specialized knowledge across organizations, virtual teams, comprising remote workers who are geographically dispersed, is an increasing trend in many industries. Pichler says organizational culture will determine if these formats will succeed.
“What’s really important for team effectiveness is a climate of trust, and this applies to all teams,” he says. “So with virtual teams, it’s important that managers provide opportunities for dialogue, for meaningful interaction not only on task, but also offline. When team members develop a shared sense of trust, the team is more collaborative and effective.”
Is Telecommuting a Good Thing for Workers and Companies?
Given the appropriate resources and support, Pichler points to a number of studies that suggest higher productivity among remote workers.
“Generally speaking, what matters is the quality of the work being done, not where it is done, and remote workers and those with other flexible arrangements are productive in part because they are reciprocating the perceived support that they attribute to their firms for having allowed them the opportunity,” he says.
But isn’t it necessary for employees to see their co-workers and supervisors face-to-face to be most effective? In an era of Skype, social media, live chats and email, Pichler points to research showing that, with the appropriate tools and resources, including the latest communication technologies and supportive management, remote workers can be more effective, or at least just as effective, as their traditional counterparts. Success can even be achieved when workers have not met their teammates or bosses in person.
“I don’t think that employees really need in-person, face-to-face interaction with their coworkers or managers to be successful,” says Pichler. “What remote workers need are the same things that all employees need: a supportive work environment, challenging work and a sense of purpose. These facts result in high performance in all types of work.”
HR in the Era of Virtual Teams
Telecommuting holds the potential to revolutionize the human resources profession. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that demand for HR managers is expected to increase 9% by 2026 and training and development specialists jumping 11%, the human resources field offers opportunities for business-savvy professionals.
“In my view, the most important step that HR professionals need to take when it comes to remote workers is providing line managers with resources and tools to help them manage remote workers and virtual teams, especially managers less experienced with managing these types of work arrangements,” says Pichler. “Research shows that even when a firm’s culture overall is supportive of flexible work, the success of the arrangement and the performance of the individual worker depends on how supportive the manager is of such arrangements. So, it’s important that managers buy into remote work and have the experience and/or training required to effectively manage remote workers.”
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