Is Remote Work a Bad Practice?

Is Remote Work a Bad Practice?

by
Freek Vermeulen

Professor of Strategy & Entrepreneurship at London Business School, and author of Breaking Bad Habits: Defy industry norms and reinvigorate your business published by Harvard Business Review Press

"Remote working" was all the rage five to 10 years ago. In fact, if as an employer you did not offer that option, you would likely be described as lagging behind, using outdated employment practices and simply not following "best practices". But is it a good practice that went too far?

Think back to the situation a few years ago. Some firms even required their employees to work remotely much of the time, whether they liked it or not: it saved on office space and was clearly "the future of work." According to a poll carried out at London Business School's Global Leadership Summit in 2014, when attendees were asked what percentage of their company's full-time workforce would be working remotely by 2020, more than half said a majority of their workforce would not be working in a traditional office.

However, lately, we have seen more firms scale back their remote working options, ordering their employees back to the office. At one point, IBM once bragged that 40 percent of its workforce worked outside traditional offices, but in 2017, the company called employees back to home base. In years past, Aetna and Bank of America also revised their work-from-home policies.

Was it all a fad then and, in fact, bad management practice?

Although offering employees some flexibility and not being overly rigid about 9-to-5 norms can reduce unnecessary "face-time" and enhance productivity, taking remote working to the level where people do not come to the office unless there is a real need for it was never going to work. That was a bad – and, frankly, naive – practice indeed.

Remote work represents a fundamental misunderstanding and underestimation of human nature. Humans have come to dominate our planet, not because we are particularly strong, fast or clever – we are successful as a species because we are adept at cooperating.

Humans have evolved over tens of thousands of years to be able to communicate, coordinate and work in groups. Face-to-face communication is key to that, including being able to read each other's emotions and intentions, and adapt to one another. Various academic research projects over the last couple years have provided clear evidence of the pivotal role of physical co-location, for example, with respect to innovation and knowledge sharing.

Why then – in hindsight – did a clearly bad practice spread so widely? Because bad practices feed on three contextual characteristics:

  1. There needs to be some aura of success, which remote working clearly had, if only because it was trending.
  2. It needs to affect tacit (rather than specific or hard) processes in your firm, so that its long-term consequences are poorly understood. Remote working affected knowledge sharing and collaboration, not the hard systems.
  3. The practice must be easy to copy, which is true for remote working too. It is not a complex practice that you spend years mastering and implementing.

The bad news is: organisations will continue to follow other poor practices like this.

What can companies learn from the failure of remote working to avoid falling prey to the next fad?

Here are some tips for your consideration:

  • Cut out benchmarking. Do not compare yourself – in terms of practices and performance – with a group of self-chosen peers just because every other competitor does it.
  • Reverse benchmark, instead. Identify a common industry practice and evaluate if there is an opportunity for innovation within it.
  • Monitor entrants. Observe how newer companies are experimenting. With less to lose, they will likely take bigger risks and it is a sign of whether a bad practice should be retired.
  • Probe insiders for concerns. Get a fresh perspective from employees who are not at the decision-making level; they understand the inner workings of their parts of the organisation.
  • And ask outsiders for suspicions. Encourage newcomers to bring forth ideas that challenge "business as usual", which might reinvigorate new life into a business. Related to this, be cautious of the phrase "that's just the way we do things around here" if heard in response to the new ideas. This phrase could be a sign of stagnancy and resistance to change.

Bad habits are not just troublesome for humans, but for organisations as well. So, is remote work a bad practice? In some cases, yes. However, the real issue is how to abandon age-old practices that persist just for the sake of it for truly good, innovative ones.

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