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What is remote work? Why is it important for business?

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For a number of years, employment trend watchers have been predicting the rise of remote work. Instead of going into the office every day, experts expect a lasting shift to remote workforces in which employees do remote work from home—or anywhere they feel like working. 

Though the appeal of such an arrangement might be obvious for workers, you might wonder how remote work actually affects employers and employees—especially if your business is thinking about permanent remote work options. 

What is remote work?

Just like it sounds, remote work means performing one’s job from a remote location that’s physically away from the office. While traditional work arrangements mean coming into an office every day, remote employees perform their jobs from off-site locations, using digital collaboration tools and communication tools, document sharing, and other functions to bring the office to them. 

Many such employees perform remote work from home, but in fact, remote work can generally be done from anywhere. Though some may choose to stay home permanently, other remote workers do their jobs from diverse locations. Common places for remote work can include:

How do people work remotely?

While some jobs, such as factory work and retail sales, require employees to perform their work in a specific physical location, remote work has fewer limitations. People working remotely can be employed on a full-time, part-time, contract, or project basis, and the actual terms of their arrangements can vary.

There are two common models for remote work:

  1. Permanent remote work
  2. Flexible remote work

In permanent remote work, the entirety of a remote worker’s job is performed outside of the office. Everything from paperwork to team meetings and conference calls happens from the remote employee’s home or chosen location, and the remote worker would have no reason to ever come into the office—they have access to all the information they need and tools to stay productive from anywhere. Permanent remote employees are often part of remote teams, meaning all of their coworkers also work from home permanently. While such teams may have never met in person, they use collaboration tools and communication tools to achieve common objectives and impart a sense of team and company culture.

Flexible remote work, also called hybrid remote work, is a combined working arrangement in which an employee is allowed to perform remote work from home but also goes into the office sometimes. Some flexible remote work arrangements have set schedules in which people work remotely on specific days and go into the office on certain days. Others may have flexible schedules in which the employee can work remotely most of the time and go into the office on an as-needed basis, for example, to attend client and team meetings. In the US, 89% of businesses plan to make some kind of flexible remote work a permanent option, permitting many or most employees to do remote work from home at least one day a week. 

How does remote work benefit employees?

While it’s easy to see why remote working is more attractive than having to come into the office every day, you might be wondering whether there are actual benefits or individual employees. The good news is there are numerous remote work pros that can improve both an employee’s wellbeing and their work.

How does remote work benefit businesses?

If you’re wondering whether remote companies benefit from allowing employees to work from home, you probably don’t need to look much further than the fact that after trying out remote work in 2020, companies such as Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook have all decided to allow employees to work from home permanently. Indeed, there are many significant remote work pros for businesses too.

1. Employee engagement: With better work-life balance, greater productivity, an ability to live healthier lifestyles, and other benefits for remote employees, it’s no surprise remote work from home makes workers more engaged. According to Gallup, an engagement boost is a major benefit of remote work, with the greatest gains coming from flexible schedules that allow people to work remotely 60%–80% of the time. Ultimately, these better employee experiences lead to better business outcomes. Gallup notes that engaged workplaces have 41% lower absenteeism, 40% fewer quality defects, and 21% higher profitability.

2. Higher retention: There’s no looking back after the workforce had a taste of the benefits of remote work in 2020. Nearly half of employees who participated in the State of Remote Work 2020 survey said if they were not allowed to continue remote work from home after coronavirus that they would look for a new job (and the majority of those who would stay put said they’d be less willing to go the extra mile for their employer). Poor retention can result in lower productivity and engagement—not only for the employee in question but the whole team—and requires businesses to spend thousands of dollars recruiting and onboarding replacements.

3. Better talent attraction: Three quarters of workers say they want to do remote work at least some of the time, while 54% want remote work from home on a full-time basis. These stats underscore the importance of allowing remote working as a recruitment strategy. In fact, remote work is such a hot work perk that 80% of candidates say they’d turn down a job that didn’t let people work remotely.

4. Cost savings: One of the greatest potential benefits of remote work is to remote companies’ bottom lines. Six out of 10 remote employers say their business has saved money allowing employees to work from home. Remote work offers numerous cost savings for businesses, including a reduction in spending on:

How much money can a business save in all by allowing remote work? An average of $11,000 per half-time remote worker, according to conservative estimates from Global Workplace Analytics.

What are some myths about remote work?

Because remote work is still relatively new, many common misperceptions abound. But many concerns about managing remote employees, poor company culture, and other drawbacks of remote work are not actually rooted in reality. Here are some common myths about remote work:

1. Remote work is less productive: A common concern about remote management is that workers will slack off at home. If anything the reverse is true: many studies—such as this research from Salesforce showing an 86% boost to productivity—have found that remote work is actually linked to getting more done.

2. Remote workers are disconnected: Without being in regular physical contact, some might assume that employees performing remote work from home will be less likely to communicate and collaborate with each other. But this “out of sight, out of mind” myth is yet another common misconception about remote work. A majority of remote employees say they communicate with their direct managers once or more per day and some remote workers say they attend more team meetings each week than employees who work in offices. Of course, when everyone is working in a different place communication and collaboration don’t happen automatically. Businesses must take the time to identify the best communication tools and collaboration tools. Employing an all-in-one solution like RingCentral for team messaging, phone calls, and video conferencing is one way to make staying in contact remotely as natural as it is at the office.

3. Remote work lacks company culture: A shared sense of purpose is an important way to drive teams to innovate and perform their best work. But many mistakenly assume that when people work remotely, company culture suffers—and things like engagement, loyalty, and commitment to the job may erode as a result. In truth, the data suggests that company culture doesn’t automatically take a hit when people work remotely. When workers were sent home during coronavirus, 37% said their company culture actually improved and 52% said they felt more purposeful. Millennial workers were more than twice as likely as boomers to report cultural improvements.

Much like remote communication, however, gains to company culture don’t happen automatically for remote workforces. Instilling and maintaining this common vision requires intentional effort, including taking steps to define company culture, to impart company values to remote employees, and to maintain a sense of shared purpose.

How can organizations support remote work?

Making remote work successful isn’t as simple as giving everyone a laptop and sending them home. For organizations to foster productive, collaborative remote workforces, they first need to give some thought to some of the main challenges with which remote workers struggle.

Though research shows that remote workers can be more productive than office-bound workers and may do better on metrics such as job engagement and satisfaction, these benefits don’t happen by accident. They require proactive thought and planning about best practices for managing remote workers, the vital tools to stay productive, and many other facets of work life that may be taken for granted in the office.

How can businesses get the best results from remote work? Here are the main three pillars to consider.

1. Company culture: Numerous studies have found significant links between a strong, well-developed company culture and other metrics of business success, including job satisfaction, customer satisfaction, increased productivity, and loyalty. But much like developing societal norms, creating a work culture typically requires a high level of interaction and bonding, with behaviors and attitudes that are reinforced through the modeling of coworkers, leadership, and management. 

A strong company culture involves laying a foundation established on self-reflection, research, and employee feedback. Next, companies must take steps to communicate their vision and integrate it with all aspects of work. For remote workforces this requires more intentional effort, with an emphasis on growing trust, camaraderie, and a shared sense of purpose via everyday remote workplace interactions.

2. Management and leadership: Managing remote workers requires a rethink of what management means. Given that most remote employees have high levels of productivity and good at getting their work done, it’s safe to say that experienced remote workers don’t need a boss peering over their shoulder to make sure they do their job. But they do need other forms of support. On an everyday basis, this might include help with time management and tools to stay productive or better collaboration tools and strategies. There are also some bigger picture ways management and leadership can better support remote workforces. For example, a lack of visibility from higher ups may contribute to remote workers’ concerns about recognition and career advancement. It’s important that people working remotely understand that managers and leaders are invested in their success, with regular touchpoints to ensure a flow of open communication. This may require different management tools and processes than would be used in the office, such as weekly one-on-one check-ins via video conferencing.

3. Technology: There is a reason (other than coronavirus!) that it took so long for remote work to become mainstream. Remote workforces require unique tools that allow them to flexibly perform their jobs from anywhere—and these simply didn’t exist a decade ago. While you might have been able to get some work done from home on the occasional sick day, there’s a good chance your phone was going unanswered and you had to make do without critical documents and tools.

Cloud computing has changed all that. Now instead of being able to access services and information from within the network, remote employees are generally able to log on to tools and services online, essentially transporting the office to their location via an internet connection. 

What tools do remote workers need to do their jobs? While the specific solutions may vary based on an individual’s role, collaboration tools, communication tools, and other solutions that enable remote workers to perform all aspects of their jobs are critical. Regardless of job function, some must-have tools for remote work include:

How to choose the best tools for remote workers

While many solutions for each of the above categories are available, it is important to consider the unique requirements of remote workforces in selecting the right solutions. There are several things remote companies should consider:

1. Security: Absent the protection of gated office environments and networks, remote companies should think about how information and communications will be protected. In selecting a cloud provider for any type of service, pay close attention to security standards, certifications and protocols, as well as any industry-specific compliance requirements.

2. Ease of use: Excess and redundant apps, complicated tools that waste people’s time, outages, and other technology issues can cause frustration for remote employees, and also erode productivity and job satisfaction. Look for tools that are intuitive to use, integrate seamlessly with other tasks and workflows, and don’t make remote work any more of a hassle than getting the job done in the office.

3. Scalability: One benefit of remote work for businesses is that it can be easier to scale workforces up and down based on need, because things like office space and where to physically put everyone are not an issue. However, for companies to scale efficiently, all employees need to be able to access critical tools from the start. Solutions that allow remote employers to quickly provision employees as needed help companies to better realize the full benefits of remote work.

The future is remote

Now that so many businesses have experienced the benefits of remote work, it’s unlikely the workforce will ever fully go back to the office. Working from home—or anywhere—offers benefits for employers and employees alike. But it also requires careful planning and the implementation of new tools and processes to help teams work closely, even when they’re not close physically.

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