Save money through remote work, but beware of this

A colleague with a software business told me recently there is a strong theme in what his clients are concerned about right now. The question keeping them awake at night is “Should I introduce remote work?”

Perhaps that sounds familiar. After working from home en masse, many a business executive has begun to notice that flexible and remote work styles are potentially a low-hanging fruit to reduce business costs.

But questions plague their consideration… Can I expect the same benefit in my business as the research seems to indicate? Will remote work be a mistake that is hard to come back from? What is the real size of the risk?

The question is a tense one. On the one hand, the potential productivity benefits are significant.  According to the 2014 Boston College et al National Workplace Flexibility report, managers reported that by developing a Flex Team Blueprint, they achieved productivity improvements of 20%. Similarly, when managers in the Stanford study …

On the other hand, the risks are great – risks to team culture, communication and ultimately productivity. In other words, flexible and remote work styles can sometimes put the core functions of a successful business at risk.

Over the last nine years, I have been involved in creating several tools to measure the business impact of flexible and remote work styles – I led the team that delivered the Australian Government’s Telework Return on Investment Calculator before telework.gov.au was archived. I wrote the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s Business Case Tool, which provides equations each business can use to know if flexible and remote work are having a positive impact. And recently, when I prepared a webinar to help people assess the cost of closing their office, we revisited the return on investment calculators of other providers.

You would think that I would be thrilled to show employers how flexible and remote work styles can cut their business costs. But there is one thing that troubles me.

There are two ways to improve productivity. One helps you get great business results, the other helps you stay afloat. Anyone who has tried it, will confirm that increasing outputs in any workplace is harder than reducing costs. One of the ways to confidently increase outputs is to recognise that people are creative, responsible adults. They can be motivated to rise above, to give their all and to pursue great aims. In other words, we increase outputs with great leadership. We increase outputs by creating great workplaces.

No disrespect to the fact that many business leaders need to seriously look at ways to cut costs right now. However there’s a difficult question to ask – a bit of soul searching here, to avoid shooting ourselves in the foot. Are we cutting costs while also looking to create the kind of workplace where our people are going to be motivated to give back and to give more? Or are we just cutting costs? In which case, we don’t view people as an asset and…

The other concern I have about the current cost focus is that if we lose sight of what is important, a series of bad decisions could follow – keystroke monitoring, inefficient technology and insufficient change support. It is entirely possible that a few months into the new flexible and remote workstyle, a harsh management approach could set in and erode trust. Flexible and remote workplaces succeed because they tune in to what makes people tick and they offer excellent leadership – there’s no secret about that.

So beware, it is not possible to have your cake and eat it too if the main thing you want to achieve through remote and flexible work is cost cutting – you can’t cut costs alone and have a thriving flexible and remote workforce. You’ll need to create a great workplace as well, which motivates people to be involved and give their all.

Of course, understanding the potential cost savings will still be an important part of your decision making. In which case here are some essential resources:

  1. Return on investment calculators to get a quick analysis of the cost reduction potential of your flexible and remote work approach:
  2. How the US Government calculated their return on investment for work from home (telework) policies: https://theclearing.com/ideas-and-insights/how-can-federal-agencies-determine-the-return-on-investment-of-their-telework-policies/
  3. Metrics and reporting guide (Champions for Change): https://www.championsforchange.nz/assets/Uploads/CFC-Metrics-and-reporting-2.pdf
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