insight magazine

Remote Possibilities

With more workers wanting to telecommute, it’s time to address the ins and outs of managing remote employees. By KRISTINE BLENKHORN RODRIGUEZ | Spring 2018


What does the typical telecommuter look like to you? You most likely envisioned someone quite young, headphones on, Starbucks at hand, dressed for lounging instead of business, right?

While you might be right sometimes, you’re also oh-so-wrong. The typical telecommuter is 50-plus years of age — a salaried, college- educated, non-union employee, according to Global Workforce Analytics (GWA).

Surprised? Don’t be; already roughly one-in-four workers telecommute, and half of the U.S. workforce holds jobs that are at least partially compatible with remote work arrangements.

In 2016, 1.5 million Illinois residents worked at home at least half of the time, not including the self-employed. And GWA says regular work-at-home arrangements among the non-self-employed population have grown nationally by 115 percent since 2005, nearly 10 times faster than the rest of the workforce.

It’s not just worker preference or work-life balance trends fueling the rush towards remote work; business benefits include happier employees, employee savings of $2,000 to $7,000 annually, and annual savings of $11,000 per person for a typical business, according to GWA.

While remote work promises big benefits, it also brings new business challenges, changing the way teams interact and deliver results.


Moving from the traditional face-to-face work environment to a remote model has its nuances, but handled skillfully, the benefits far outweigh the challenges below.

Management styles. Many seasoned leaders will have to rethink and change their management styles to be successful in remote working environments. “They’re used to managing face time and now they must instead manage productivity without it,” says Janice Aull, owner of performance improvement facilitation firm Aull About U. “In remote working environments, the emphasis is less on relationships and more on outcomes.”

Trust is a major predictor of managerial success in remote work environments. “Some leaders are naturally trusting; others are distrusting. It’s a continuum. But we’ve found trust, more than anything else, predicts distributed leadership success,” says Dr. Laura Hambley of Work EvOHlution, an industrial psychology firm that develops assessments and profiles for distributed work situations. “Distrustful types micro-manage, which wreaks havoc in any working environment but particularly in a remote one.”

Work-life imbalances. While distrustful managers worry their outof- sight employees are slacking off, the opposite is often the problem. Because home has become “the office,” many managers, and even their employees, take advantage of that fact.

Sending weekend or late-night emails with expectations of immediate responses is inappropriate, Aull says, unless that has always been part of the job. “Management needs to set expectations for hours of work availability. Otherwise, it’s far too easy for work to bleed into personal time, which makes most employees less productive instead of more productive.”

Technology troubles. Even if a company provides each employee with a basic at-home technology package to ensure consistency, usability is not guaranteed. “As an employee, you have to create self-directed learning for the technology that will make it easier for you to do your job from home or wherever you may be,” Aull says. Continuous learning and a continuous growth mindset are key to success, and sometimes so is a contingency plan.

“Having a Plan B is essential for day-to-day success,” Hambley adds. “Technology can be iffy. What if connectivity breaks at the start of a conference call? Where does everyone reconvene virtually? These are the kinds of issues many team leads still don’t plan for — and they can reduce productivity.”

Communication conflicts. “In a remote environment, if you don’t have the right tools and policies, people can become really good at getting their stuff done but not very good at collaboration. Team effort still matters,” says Kevin Eikenberry, owner of The Kevin Eikenberry Group, a leadership and learning consulting company that provides training, consulting and coaching services to organizations. He emphasizes it’s not just a matter of choosing the right collaboration technology tools but also encouraging communication amongst team members.

The ability to choose the right communication medium at the right time is a skill worth teaching employees, according to Hambley. “Remote working promotes an over-reliance on email. But, there are times when picking up the phone is better. Or, when a video call to see body language and facial cues trumps just audio,” she explains. “The better teams get at discerning what works for different types of situations or personalities, the better the team dynamic.”


While expert observations are helpful, nothing beats hearing from those in the field trying to make remote work, well, work.

National Equity Fund. Gaylene Domer, VP of Facilities Management, notices less stress amongst employees during her company’s usually very hectic March through November deal-making timeframe. Employees say it’s because they can now work from home a couple of days per week: they save time commuting and are better able to keep work-life balance despite the frenzied pace of business.

“Turnover has gone from 8 percent to 4.3 percent in four years, and we’re attracting new employees at a better rate,” Domer explains. “People admit that they’ve been offered more money elsewhere but took this job because of the flexibility remote work offers them.”

What’s more, with 93 of 176 employees now participating in the work-from-home program, Domer says National Equity Fund was able to save $2.5 million over the course of its office lease.

Domer admits that winning over senior managers was crucial to making the program successful. “I urged our senior managers to take their work-from-home days because otherwise team members wouldn’t. It wasn’t so hard once our CEO started to do it. He has been a champion from day one.”

NodeSource. Joe McCann, founder and CEO, says he had an epiphany about remote working arrangements while sitting in an Amsterdam café. “I was working for a large software firm as a developer on a contract basis. I was in a great café in Amsterdam, enjoying life and work, and I thought, ‘This is the way it should be.’ Something had to give. People are fed up with long commutes, lack of time with their kids, inflexible schedules. I went from Wall Street and corporate America to a life that included work — but was not all work, all the time.”

McCann turned his epiphany into NodeSource, a completely remote company from inception: “We are distributed by design. If you start decentralized, your DNA is there. You don’t have all the issues of transforming large centralized systems into workable, agile systems.”

“A nine-to-five workday is irrational and archaic,” McCann continues. “Some of my software developers do their best work at 2 a.m. I am most productive at 5 a.m. I hire people who deliver — in part because they do their yoga midday, have brunch with their uncle every Wednesday, whatever. They get to design their day as long as they continue to deliver.”

BroadPath Healthcare Solutions. A whopping 96 percent of CEO Daron Robertson’s roughly 1,400 employees work from home. Robertson says BroadPath went “all-in” on a remote model not only to help employees, but because it allows the company to better serve clients.

The company uses Beehive, a self-developed remote management and collaboration technology that allows employees to see and interact with each other. “A big problem with hybrid deployments is that remote workers feel left out,” Robertson explains.

Beehive also is used to also facilitate the workplace fun remote workers would normally miss. “For example, we are launching a remote instructor-led fitness program with yoga classes for employees. Think fitness challenge for at-home workers, but they do it together in real-time. Lots of brick-and-mortar companies have these onsite, but few seem to offer them to home-based workers,” Robertson says.

Pizza day — where pizzas are delivered at the same time to workers on a team — allows workers to still have face time together during lunch, joking and laughing despite being miles away from each other. Crazy hat day is another employee favorite, according to Robertson. “It’s about developing connection, in the end. And it helps my leaders better manage their teams,” he says.

Broadpath’s results so far? Attracting higher caliber employees, producing higher quality work, lower attrition, and lower costs.


Telecommuting’s growth is unlikely to slow, let alone stop, if recent history is any indication — employment growth for telecommuters has outpaced non-telecommuters year-over-year for more than a decade. Remote working arrangements are not a fad, but rather a way for companies to maintain productivity and profitability in an era where workers simply don’t want to be tied to a traditional office environment.

At its best, telecommuting forces “leaders and employees to focus on accomplishment, not activity,” Eikenberry says. But the millions of dollars saved in office space and higher retention rates don’t hurt either.

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