Remote Working is Normalizing

A new report from freelance marketplace Upwork has some interesting insights into how remote working is becoming more and more standard among companies, even if many don’t yet have policies or systems in place to actually address that or make it work.

Having spent the better part of the last 15 years engaged in some form of remote work, I want to share some thoughts on all the data points identified in the report.

Unique Skills are Hard To Come By

There are two points regarding skills that are called out in the report: First, that hiring managers are having a hard time filling roles because the skills needed are hard to come by. Second, that technology and innovation are driving skill-specialization. The second, I think, informs the first.

There have been countless stories in the last couple years about how the expectations laid out in job listings are sometimes out of whack with reality. You can’t have five years of experience with a technology or tool that’s only been around for two. That’s a sign that the people who are actually doing the hiring aren’t working with those on the front lines to actually find the best people, at least not as much as they should be.

It brings to mind the story from a few weeks ago about how more companies were building up in-house creative and marketing shops because the skills that used to be in limited supply and only available through agencies were more common now. So it made sense to bring some functions internal now that there wasn’t such high demand that salaries were outrageous and there wasn’t anyone qualified to oversee or work with that person anyway. Eventually, specialties become less so and hiring becomes easier.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be available near where the company is based, though. Geography has traditionally limited the hiring pool. You had to find someone who could walk, ride, drive or commute to a central rallying point AND have the abilities you were looking for. Technology has made physical location less important. It’s why a Sunnyvale, CA PR agency can work seamlessly with a Winter Haven, FL web development shop as well as individuals in Chicago, Boston, Des Moines and elsewhere.

This also speaks to the role companies play in training their staff. As new specialties emerge and roles are developed, there’s the option to either try and hire someone brand new and hope they fit, or train a current employee who’s interested but may only have 75% of the skills needed. A number of industries are finding retraining is key to retaining a workforce that is already part of the organization and has all the “soft” skills needed as opposed trying to go out and start from scratch with a new hire.

Remote Staff Are More Common and Accepted, but Lack Formal Policies

An increasing number of companies are becoming more flexible with when and how staff is expected to come to the physical office. The majority of departments, according to the survey, have someone who works remotely at least most of the time and that’s fine with the company. The standards have shifted to some extent in that it’s no longer solely about face-time with the boss, it’s about getting the work done.

Technology has enabled this, of course. Slack, Yammer, Facebook Work and other tools have made connecting across disparate locations easier than ever. You can video chat with someone on Slack or Google Hangouts to see those you work with and discuss issues or get updates without having to all be sharing the same floor space. In fact a recent study shows that younger managers prefer to communicate via messaging apps and video chats as opposed to in-person because that’s what they’ve become acclimated to in their personal lives to date.

It’s telling, though that only about a third of companies in the survey have a formal policy for remote working. That means current remote staff may face problems regarding promotions or advancement, human resources issues and more. If there’s no defined processes or considerations given to those who aren’t getting the kind of in-person attention others are, there can be problems that lead to resentment.

Too often a company will say it’s totally cool with remote work and say “Oh yeah, we use Google Apps and Slack so you’ll be fine” without going the extra mile to set up regular check-ins between the remote worker and company leadership or managers. Those kinds of considerations are essential for everyone to succeed and feel valued and protected.

The Role of the Office – And the Status of Workers – Are Changing

As I mentioned above, offices have traditionally been the central rallying point for the whole company. My father worked for Montgomery Ward for 30+ years in one of two locations: The national distribution center in Berkeley, IL or the corporate headquarters in Chicago. While the company had outposts elsewhere, a good chunk of the employees was all there. Anyone hired by Wards, if they didn’t already live in the Chicago area, would have to move there to do so. That was just reality.

Now formal office space is increasingly seen not so much as an essential component because staff literally couldn’t do their jobs anywhere else but as more of a space for collaboration and community. They’re being developed as live/work spaces as companies contract with coworking management companies like WeWork because an increasingly large number of their workers are not full-time staff but contractors or freelancers.

Some of those have intentionally chosen that career path and a recent FreshBooks study shows that number may grow substantially in the next few years. Others are turning to freelancing or contracting because they can’t find full-time positions. Whatever the reason, freelancers now make up over one-third of the workforce.

The reasons freelancers and contractors are more attractive to employers than full-time staff varies, but largely involve not needing to provide benefits like health care and retirement or other protections that were part-and-parcel of the “traditional” workplace.

These kinds of workers may not want – or be able – to spend their entire day in an office because they need or have become accustomed to a more flexible schedule. But they can make it in for an in-person meeting once a week or so, assuming they still live in the same geographic area. If not, a Skype call-in is cool.

Office space is also a huge expense and, if companies can cut back on the square footage they’re leasing inexpensive central locations they’re more than happy to do so.

All This Changes Expectations, Too

Of course a changing workforce changes everyone’s expectations about what constitutes work and its trappings. What is or isn’t appropriate work attire is up for debate when someone works from home or a remote location 90% of the time. Full-time workers may expect that the travel they’re required to do for work comes with time enough to fit in leisure activities as well.

It may also change what “taking a day off” or “calling in sick” means. I’ve experienced this myself: If you work from home and still have access to email, Slack and other tools, will others judge you if you actually take the day to drink your fluids and watch Star Wars while hoping the fever breaks, or should you log on and check in with everyone while you’re recuperating? How much can you afford to actually disengage on any given day when you’re freelancing and a client or new business prospect wants to talk? Will saying “No, I’m out today” impact your reputation and working relationship with them?

Those are real questions and issues that those who work remotely – either for one company or on a freelance basis – grapple with regularly.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

 

Author: Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.