John is a face-time guy. He trained in the school of MBWA (Management by Walking Around), not the app. As CEO of a private-equity-backed, midsize company, he’s attributed much of his success to his ability to directly engage and motivate, looking in the eyes of the people charged with moving the business forward. He leaves his door open whenever possible, encourages employees to pose questions and raise concerns, and prides himself on always knowing the status of deliverables. He’s the first one in and the last to leave, and he genuinely enjoys the time he spends at work.
But John is worried. His office is emptier because much of his leadership team opts to telecommute. While John agreed to this, he did so reluctantly—wary of losing talent in today’s tight job market. Now that summer is here, he’s afraid he made a mistake. Important personnel have plans to spend much of July and August at vacation properties or at home. How will he ensure productivity stays high with so many people working from afar?
John is not alone. Those charged with managing talent are often most skeptical about telecommuting, especially in competitive, high-stakes environments. Yet leaders willing to approve remote arrangements for key team members, embracing a less restrictive workplace culture, can gain a significant competitive advantage and even boost productivity, not just in summer but throughout the year.
These are the steps to take to make that happen.
Accept the new normal
Workplace flexibility is fast becoming one of the major hallmarks of an evolving employee-employer relationship. According to LinkedIn’s 2019 Talent Trends report, the percentage of users who say “flexible work arrangements are very important when considering a job” grew 78% since 2016. This spike should signify to leaders that the option to work remotely is no longer a rare perk but is fast becoming an expectation, especially among more senior employees.
Many workplaces are responding in kind, with a growing percentage of companies permitting remote work at least some of the time. According to LinkedIn’s report, companies that offer remote work include 72% in software/IT, 62% in finance, 57% in corporate services, 43% in healthcare, and 43% in manufacturing. Given this trend and the challenge of attracting and retaining talent, many businesses can’t afford not to offer telecommuting options. Accepting this reality can help leaders stop wrestling with whether to implement such policies and focus instead on how to make them work and for whom.
Recognize the benefits
Happily, the benefits of flexible work arrangements are not limited to employees. Beyond attracting and retaining experienced individuals with greater work-life balance, and opening the talent market to those in different geographic areas, research now confirms that those who telecommute work harder. A study out of Stanford, conducted in partnership with the China-based company Ctrip, showed that a pilot project in which Ctrip employees worked from home not only reduced turnover by 50% but also boosted productivity by 13%. The results spurred the company to expand the policy to all 16,000 employees and saw even greater productivity gains: an increase of 22.6%. Better understanding these benefits can shift the thinking of leaders so that they view telecommuting far less skeptically.
Because isolation ranks as a top challenge for telecommuters, leaders must ensure remote work arrangements foster a continued sense of community and belonging. This helps balance a need for connectedness with options for flexibility. For example, leaders can ensure remote team members are more than just avatars by making sure to ask about their lives even when time is running short on conference calls. They can also embrace inevitable work-life collisions like interruptions by children and pets. At the same time, they can set boundaries should issues like sound quality prevent consistent, meaningful participation. By incorporating such practices into broader talent strategies, leaders can enhance employee experiences, even remotely, and build positive workplace cultures.
Embrace new tools
Telecommuting options have expanded alongside a growing array of technologies that bridge geographic distances to help foster collaboration and team bonding. For example, videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Webex create more interpersonal connections than mere conference calls, and collaborative work platforms like Asana, Monday.com, and Trello help track team progress regardless of geographic location. Slack makes it possible for remote teams to group-chat and includes a critical “do not disturb” feature so individuals can focus on complex projects and deadlines. Slack can also facilitate team bonding over nonwork matters, allowing for channels dedicated to everything from exercise to parenting. It’s up to leaders to decide which tools to embrace and how often to use them in pursuit of replicating on-site schedules and experiences.
Leaders who are uneasy about their leadership teams working remotely would benefit from looking inward and considering the feelings behind their disquiet. Some might be uncomfortable using technologies recommended for telecommuting arrangements and would be wise to simply bite the bullet and catch themselves up. Others might fear the loss of control that comes with decreased oversight. Resentments can also surface among leaders who didn’t have telecommuting options but could have benefited from them at key points in their career. Better understanding these feelings can increase self-awareness and promote effective leadership from a position of insight rather than fear.
Leaders who evolve as the idea of “workplace” evolves, carefully and intentionally fostering organizational cultures that incorporate and optimize remote leadership teams, will be well positioned to succeed during the summer months and beyond. They’ll see a marked improvement in morale, loyalty, and retention. They’ll also spur added focus and greater autonomy on the part of team members, and these are hallmarks of organizational efficiency. Such benefits can extend long past summer, keeping productivity high all year round.
Addam Marcotte is general manager of FMG Leading, an advisory firm that creates value by helping organizations align business strategy with human capital performance. He’s an in-demand consultant who focuses on large-scale change, team development, and organizational culture.