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Debunking the myth of the ‘remote worker’

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An article exploding common stereotypes of remote workers, including four worker interviews

Every office worker has a story about a work-from-home colleague, don’t they? That time they joined the videoconference in their boxer shorts. Or weren’t quite fast enough muting the background noise of “World of Warcraft”.

But dig for details, and you’ll find it’s always a tale from a previous job. Or happened to someone they knew. Research shows the typical remote worker is more productive, takes less sick time, and works more hours every day (pyjama-clad or not).

There’s a reason, and it’s to do with psychology: public face versus private face. For office-based workers, the “face” they present to their employers can be starkly defined: turning up at 9am, wearing a suit and tie, and so on. Without these cues, the remote worker has to get creative to make the same impression. Would you expect a necktie on someone working at their kitchen countertop? Remote workers have to work hard on other ways of presenting themselves as productive members of your team.

And often, far from slacking off, that means putting extra energy into their jobs.

To find some anecdotal evidence to add to the empirical research, our communication and collaboration specialists here at Arkadin interviewed a few remote and flexible workers around the world. As you’d expect, all liked working from a place of their choosing – and all agreed they tended to work harder and be more productive. But some of the ways they did it might surprise you.

Case A: The luxury of remote working

“Valerie” is based in Paris. She frequently works from home for her full-time employer, a luxury products maker.

Q: You work in luxury clothing and accessories. How does the stereotypical image of a remote worker – complete with dressing gown and chipped coffee mug – square with your experience?

A: It doesn’t at all – mainly because I hold at least four videoconferences a day, and I’m expected to be not just dressed, but exquisitely dressed! (Laughs.) Actually, I couldn’t do without those conferences – they give me a real, daily connection to what our major retail customers are doing, and what they think of our latest products.

If I only had email, I wouldn’t be able to see their faces…or their reactions when I unveil a new piece of jewellery or clothing. I’m not in the office, because my most important work doesn’t happen in the office.

– Valerie, Paris

The verdict: Clothes may maketh the man, but they also maketh the remote worker.

Case B: The rigidity of flexible hours

Based in London, “Chris” is a freelance copywriter. He works remotely with clients as far apart as Taiwan, Singapore, France, and the USA.

Q: You’ve been freelancing a long time. Does that mean you set your own hours and work whenever you like?

A: Yes – but not in the way you think. I set my own hours – but they’re stricter than any office-based employee! In a typical day I only “work” six hours… but in those hours (two three-hour shifts) I’m ultra-focused, and get far more done than I did during the twelve-hour days I used to work in ad agencies.

Using shared documents to collaborate also means I can time-shift my work to satisfy customers in other time zones. When I’m “on shift”, I lock myself away and don’t let myself get distracted by phone calls, email, or the fridge. Being ultra-disciplined about my working hours also lets me enjoy other hobbies, so I never get jaded by work – there’s always my kettlebell training or a Spanish lesson to look forward to. I set strict times for those activities too!

– Chris, London

By 2020, 50% of the American workforce will be freelancers.

The verdict: Empowered workers are stricter on themselves than a boss will ever be.

Case C: Exploding the parent stereotype

“Stacey” is a property executive managing land and buildings in the rural parts of the UK. She works from home two days a week, which allows her to spend time with her young son.

Q: You worked full time for four years before exercising your legal right to ask for flexible arrangements. Why wait so long?

A: The gender stereotype! In a mostly-male office I was determined not to succumb to the image of the mum who’s always leaving the office early. In the end, it was my boss who actively suggested I should work from home – when he noticed I’d submitted more work during a week off sick than I did in a normal one!

At home, I find I can organise the complex legal documents I work with faster and more accurately – sometimes I’m tracking down land ownership going back centuries. Getting quality time with my son is a bonus, not the reason I asked to work remotely. The company gets more output, I handle more work.

– Stacey, United Kingdom

Over half of HR directors believe remote working boosts staff productivity

The verdict: Work-from-home mums are the business world’s secret weapon!

Case D: Offices are for working, home is for meetings

In Singapore we have “Melinda”, a telecoms executive. Almost everyone in her company works remotely.

Q: What was the primary factor in you asking for flexible work arrangements?

A: Actually, I didn’t want to! I was worried I’d lose contact with my colleagues in the office and miss those snippets of important information you pick up at the watercooler and in little meetings around the building. So initially I wasn’t enthusiastic about it at all.

But within a month of starting, I found I could organise my calendar in a very unusual way. Instead of holding meetings on my office days and project work when I was at home, it worked best the other way around – devoting office days to writing documents, and holding meetings virtually, when I was remote! I did this because I noticed virtual meetings – mostly conference calls and some video – tended to be shorter, included the right people, and led to faster decision making. Instead of managing four meetings a day, I was handling six, eight, 10 all from my living room. I’m now a remote working addict.

– Melinda, Singapore

Just 12% of Asia-Pacific workers spend a day a week at home – but it’s growing fast

The verdict: Working from home keeps business connections fresh.

Do our interviewees fit the stereotype of the great unwashed work-from-homer? Not at all. Three are executive level, only one is a freelancer, and all four hold international meetings when they work remotely. All work precise hours, two work on complex collaborative documents. They may be “out of office” – but they’re never out of contact.

With the productivity boosts and time savings reported by our interviewees, isn’t it time you looked at software that enables your people to work remotely for competitive advantage? Start by calling Arkadin.

Takeaways:

  • Remote workers rarely fit their pyjama-clad stereotype
  • Flexible working isn’t just for working mums
  • Remote workers often hold even more work meetings than office-based people
  • Remote workers often hold themselves to higher standards of dress and timekeeping than the average office worker
  • Communication and collaboration software isn’t limiting, but enabling

You want to establish a remote workforce, but is your HR up to par? Discover the key to increasing productivity and motivation amongst remote workers, and create a successful management culture built upon trust in The Connected Business: The Rise of Remote Working and Your HR Policy.

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About the author

Annemarie, leads and implements the HR strategy across northern Europe at Arkadin Collaboration Services. She is passionate about the role of unified communication in company communications and employee recruitment and retention.

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