The Rise of the Remote Workforce and What it Means for Future Teams

Does your office go beyond the cubicle?

If not, it might only be a matter of time. Data from Global Workplace Analytics reveals that the number of non-self-employed workers who telecommute has grown 115% since 2005. That’s a growth rate of nearly 10 times the speed of the rest of the workforce.

In fact, Gallup research indicates more time is spent working remotely in some capacity than ever before.

These numbers are likely to change drastically in the coming years. Some experts predict that as much as half of the U.S. workforce will be remote by the year 2020.

That means going from 2.8 % to 50% in less than two years.

“We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they [are] at their desk or in their kitchen. Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will.” – 

Richard Branson, Founder and Chairman of Virgin

How did we get here? Why the sudden interest in telecommuting? And most importantly, what will this spike in remote work mean for a company’s future?

 The Birth of the Remote Era

The workplace is changing, whether you realize it or not. Telecommuting itself isn’t new, but today’s technology has made it easier (and more logical) for employers to offer it as a viable option.

In fact, 40% more companies offer flexible workplace options than they did just five years ago. Predictions indicate that the positive benefits of working from home combined with the flexible technology to do so are creating an unprecedented shift in the workforce that may eventually phase out the traditional 9-to-5 for many.

But what, specifically has heralded such a drastic change in workplace culture?

Analysts pinpoint changing demographics, technology, and the Great Recession as prime factors.

Family Demographics

A few decades ago, it was common for families to have one working parent while the other stays at home to care for children and household responsibilities. That isn’t the case today, as most families have two working parents, leading to a need to save time whenever and wherever possible.

Innovation

Cloud technology’s emergence eliminated the need for on-site access. This innovation single-handedly paved a truly feasible, cost-effective way for employees to perform their job duties from anywhere.

The Great Recession

The Great Recession might have been the biggest trigger.

A report from familesandwork.org reported that 19% of employees increased telecommuting jobs during the Great Recession.

During this period, employers and consumers alike were cutting costs at every angle. Jobs were scarce. Gas prices weren’t coming down. Everyone was trying to do more with less.

One effective way some companies avoided the economic crunch was by increasing telecommuting opportunities to reduce labor and occupancy costs and compress workweeks. This allowed businesses to lower operating costs without employees feeling the pinch of a reduction in hours.

The Seemingly Win/Win Scenario for Companies and Teleworkers

The cost-saving benefits of telecommuting are just the beginning.

Research from Global Workplace Analytics cites a lengthy list of other positive factors:

  • Telecommuting increases employee satisfaction, which can help lower attrition and increase productivity
  • It limits workplace discrimination and potential workplace conflict
  • It reduces wasted workday hours (meetings, socializing, etc)
  • It boosts employees’ self-directedness
  • Flexible schedules could encourage retired workers to stay partially employed while still enjoying retirement
  • Employers can reduce the necessary real estate space, technology, and infrastructure required to take on new employees
  • Working from home extends job opportunities to disabled workers or those without transportation
  • It allows businesses to scale up or down with ease
  • It’s an eco-friendly option
  • Business can keep going in the event of a power outage or weather-related disaster
  • Businesses can take advantage of state-offered incentives to adopt telecommuting positions

Some studies have found that working a flex schedule (part telecommuting, part on-site) can have a positive effect on employee health, happiness, and well-being. No one wants to spend a chunk of their day stressing in traffic or on public transportation. Telecommuters can spend their former transportation time exercising, eating a healthy breakfast, or catching up on rest prior to starting the workday.

The Downsides to Remote Work that No One is Talking About

It’s not sunshine and roses for telecommuters, but not many outlets seem to want to cover the downsides of working remotely.

For starters, many companies rely on the strength of their teams and company culture as keys to their success. Both of elements look vastly different with a fragmented workforce that rarely, if ever, sees each other.

Communications expert StatusPage documented their failed attempt at building a remote team. They cited a weakened connection between team members as one of their strategy’s biggest flaws, alongside a lackluster culture and work/life balance.

As company leaders, you simply can’t be everywhere all the time to field questions or solve problems. You rely on your team to provide solutions and remain engaged with the company’s mission to handle business in your absence. Your culture enables them to make decisions in the same way you would if you were present.

Culture looks different when you have remote workers. They have fewer opportunities to interact with you and others in the company to absorb those values and understand internal operations outside of their normal duties.

In addition, camaraderie suffers when your people aren’t able to connect on the same level. When team members are miles away from each other and rarely interact, trust and communication can disappear.

Interest in the pros and cons of telecommuting

Combatting the Ill Effects of Telecommuting

It’s easy to see the clear benefits of telecommuting for both worker and employer on the individual level, but the downsides of the combined groups are trickier to navigate.

To combat some of the burdens telecommuting creates, companies are emphasizing team building opportunities now more than ever.

In addition, Facebook groups, digital meeting spaces like Slack, and internal social networks are other attempts at creating a fragmented workplace culture.

Suffice it to say, these methods don’t have the exact same effects as working fully on-site. But they’re a huge step up from having no way to bridge connections between workers who are hundreds or thousands of miles away from your company.

The Future Impact of the Remote Workforce

As more companies begin to offer telecommuting positions, the companies who do not may find it harder to recruit or retain top talent. At least two-thirds of the workforce say they want work-at-home opportunities, and 36% would be willing to accept one over a pay raise.

Gen Y’ers, in particular, are keen on the prospect of a flex work schedule, and as Baby Boomers enter retirement it will be dually important for companies to find ways to attract this new breed of workers.

Of course, telecommuting simply isn’t possible for many jobs, especially those in public-facing roles, such as retail workers and public service jobs. But one thing’s for sure: the workplace is changing at a rate much faster than most companies realize.

The sooner you can prepare yourself for this shift in workplace habits, the more likely you stand to weather the storm a winner.