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Build a Workforce, Not a Workplace

Build a Workforce, Not a Workplace

Remote employee. Telecommuter. Satellite human. Whatever you call it, there seems to be a lot of conversation going on about the evolution of the workplace – and the workforce – of the future. So much so, in fact, that what began as an idea for a single blog post has evolved into a blog mini-series. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be sharing insights, thoughts and data on remote employment in four parts:

  1. The Flexible Future: Why You Should Focus on Building a Workforce Not a Workplace
  2. I Swear I’m Wearing Pants: Misconceptions About Remote Employment and Employees
  3. From the Mouths of Managers: Advice and Insights on Making Remote Work for Your Company
  4. Welcome to Home Office Depot: Tools, Tricks and Tips of the Trade

So let’s begin.

In the two years since I started working remotely for my agency, a lot has changed in the business world. I’ve gone from being an anomaly to one of the millions of Americans making it happen from wherever we happen to be. And while I recognize that certain industries tend to be a little more embracing of this new trend, I find it refreshing that the general conversation has evolved from, “WHAT. YOU WORK FROM HOME? HOW DOES THAT WORK?” to “I’m remote, too. Don’t you love it?” The “worker bees in fake pants” have become our own tribe of new normal. And it’s catching on fast.

A Look at the Data

34 million Americans worked from home in 2013. That number is predicted to reach a staggering 63 million – 43 percent of the total U.S. workforce – by 2016.

That’s right. Almost half of the workforce is expected to work from home by the end of next year. While that figure may be a wee bit optimistic, there’s no denying that we are seeing a swift evolution in focus from workplace to workforce. Companies are eagerly embracing the understanding that in order to compete and thrive, they need to build a team of top talent – not just a team that shares an office space. From the employee side, work-life integration is taking precedence, turning flexibility into the ultimate employment perk.

An annual survey conducted last year by the Society for Human Resource Management found a greater increase in the number of companies planning to offer telecommuting in 2014 than those offering just about any other new benefit. While there are surely a multitude of factors prompting companies to embrace remote options, a few of the biggest motivating factors are:

Remote options retain current talent. When it comes to top talent, poaching is the name of the game. There is always someone dangling a carrot offering more money, more plentiful perks or a better deal. In 2014, employees received an average raise of only three percent from their employers. Given the cost of inflation, that pans out to approximately one percent in additional spending power. However, if an employee opts to leave their current employer and accept a position with a new company, they can expect an average 20 percent increase in salary. That’s a pretty enticing difference.

The numbers vary slightly, but the average cost to replace an employee who quits ranges anywhere from 50-150% of their salary. And that figure doesn’t take into account the hit to established client relationships, workflow and the brand reputation. (Think people don’t notice when your agency/company is a revolving door? They do. They really do.) says it well: “If your company has thousands of dollars that it can just light on fire at the next office BBQ, then maybe you don’t really need to invest in employee retention. But my guess is that the vast majority of companies are simply not in that position. It costs less to retain than it does to replace.”

Moves happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes even the happiest employee has got to go (spouse relocation, caring for aging parents, etc.). But relocating doesn’t have to be synonymous with leaving a company and job you love. (That’s bad for the company and bad for the person.) Remote employment options open door to alternate arrangements that are good for employees and good for business. Employment becomes less about where you are – and more about that special something you bring to the business. (Fun Fact: Remote employees reported higher levels of happiness and were found to be 50 percent less likely to quit than their peers.)

Remote options attract prospective talent. Similarly, remote employment options allow companies to tap into and attract a much wider pool of prospective talent. Chances are, the best applicants for a given position don’t live in your backyard – or even in your zip code. For companies that physically exist in smaller, rural areas, this challenge is even greater. The smaller the city, the smaller the talent pool, which can prove to be especially challenging when it comes to recruiting, attracting and hiring applicants with highly-specialized skill sets.

When your company considers only local talent, you’re hiring for geography, not skill set. I challenge you to find a single case study where being in the same location proved a greater contributor to a company’s success than the passion and talent the team brought to the table.

Remote lowers overhead costs. As part of its BlueWork program, American Express conducts an employee survey, which helps assign employees to one of four categories: Hub, Club, Roam and Home. “Hub” employees’ work requires a fixed desk, and their presence in the office every day.  “Club” employees have flexible roles that involve in-person and virtual meetings; they have the opportunity to share time between the office and other locations. Those in the “Home” category are based from home offices – set up with assistance from the company – on three or more days per week. “Roam” employees are almost always on the road or at customer sites, and seldom work from an American Express office. The BlueWork program has delivered not only improved worker productivity but also saved between $10- $15 million annually in real estate costs, the company says. [source]

So now that we’ve covered a few of the benefits of remote workplace options, let’s talk about some of the struggles. On Thursday I will be sharing a post about misconceptions and misperceptions about remote employment and being a remote employee. In order to prep for the post, I threw the question out to remote employees in my social network. Here were a few of the responses I received regarding the things people have said to them:

“That when you are not in the office you are taking the day off.”

“That it means you either have to work from home or coffee shop.”

“That it’s difficult to keep in touch with co-workers, access files, etc.”

“That you never see your coworkers or talk to them.”

“That you can’t possibly be putting in 8 hours a day at home.”

“That you work in a bubble of isolation.”

“That you must get nothing done.”

“That you are lazy, haven’t showered in two weeks and only wear pajamas. Pajamas? No, sir. Yoga pants? Well, yes.”

Curious. What comes to mind when YOU think about remote employment and employees? 

Why the Future of the Workplace is No Workplace at All

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 1.15.03 AM Lately, I have been sifting through an endless stream of posts about the things that influence workplace happiness and theories about what employees really want. From the perks of good coffee to the merits of standing desks to the endless debate about whether open offices are amazing or awful (I tend to be in the latter camp on that one), there are a lot of studies and a lot of opinions floating around.

Niceties are nice, but at the core, I think this entire conversation is spiraling and sidestepping a much larger reality. We're standing on the edge of a huge and inevitable cultural shift; a shift I believe will have at least as large an impact on American culture as women forgoing stay-at-home motherhood in favor of entering the workforce.

Quality of life is no longer limited to a simple matter of income. For years we've been told to strive for a work/life balance, but people are finally waking up. They're realizing that balance is bullshit, and life shouldn't take a backseat to their jobs. The result?  A slow and steady  workplace evolution is taking place to match the shifting priorities of the talent companies are looking to hire and keep.

The single value that's driving it all? Autonomy.

This is the part where I tell you I'm clearly biased on this topic. I work for an agency that grants me the ability to work remotely from 500 miles away. They put their full trust in me -- and I do my best to show my gratitude by working hard and doing everything I can to make sure I never give them a reason to doubt our arrangement. (But I'll save the lessons and learnings on remote employment for  another post.)

Over the last couple years of remote employment, I have learned it's a topic that currently gives a lot of people (primarily people in leadership positions) serious indigestion. How does that work? How do they know you're doing what you're supposed to be doing? And while there are many parts and pieces to the logistics (from Skype meetings to workflow systems), the crux of those polite inquiries really boils down to this: How can I have a 100% guarantee that a remote employee is doing what they're supposed to be doing? 

The bad news is: you can't. The good news? That reality is nothing new or different.

From a recent post on Quartz:

“We have this factory model, and we think someone’s working if they show up in the morning and they’re not drunk, they don’t sleep at their desks, they leave at the right time. But that has so little to do with what you create. And we all know people who create a lot without fitting into those norms.”

Research indicates employees greatly value autonomy. This is part of what’s driving millennials to leave traditional offices and go out on their own. “It’s a cultural phenomenon,” says Alex Abelin, co-founder of Liquid Talent.“Everything is pointing in that direction. We care more about mobility and independence.”

As my dear friend Heather Whaling once said, if you can't trust people to work without you standing over their shoulder, you've hired the wrong people. That's a people problem, not a process problem. So, that nervous feeling you're getting in your gut as you read this? In the wise words of a tundra princess, let it go. That thing you're fighting against is already happening and it's happening fast. You've only got two choices: embrace it and thrive or push back and find yourself way behind the curve five years down the road. (Remember all those people who once claimed the internet was just a fad and email would never catch on? Yeah, nobody wants to be those guys. And nobody wants to work for that company.)

Don't worry. I'm not going to leave you feeling exposed in the harsh light of a new dawn. I've put together a few thoughts on why this is all really a good thing for business:

Remote allows you to tap into a bigger, better bucket of talent. Hiring is hard. Finding that perfect person who is a great cultural fit with the just-right skill set is hard, hard, hard. When you do find that person, the chances they'll live locally are rather slim, which leaves you with a couple options. You can try to woo them and pay for relocation expenses or you can settle for whoever you can find locally.

In many instances, embracing job relocation isn't as simple as saying "yes" to a great offer. The reality of spouses, children and home ownership all factor into the equation for job candidates. And rightfully so, these things often take precedence over a new job.

I do not believe geography should be the determining factor when it comes to new hires. If I'm a client, I don't care where my designer or copywriter sits -- I care about the creative talent they bring to the table. Whether they are bringing it from Baltimore, Bakersfield or Bangladesh makes no difference to me.

By offering employees a more flexible working arrangement -- the ability to work from anywhere -- you open yourself up to welcoming new and stronger talent onto your team. Instead of just hiring people who can get to your office, you're suddenly able to hire people who get you and want to be a part of what you're doing.  You're building a better, stronger company, not just a "based-in-wherever" company.

Early adopters will become the winningest brands. Times are changing -- fast. The companies currently getting cultural and technological infrastructure in place to support the forthcoming era of the "mobile workplace" will have first dibs at the best talent. I predict the autonomy offered by the mobile workplace will be a part of the culture of all brands on the Top 100 list within the next few years. Why? Because it's a perk that is going to appeal to top talent. And top talent is what drives the creativity and innovation behind top brands.

More people in more places means more new business opportunities. Your employees are some of your best ambassadors. They're a living, walking, breathing extension of your brand. Whether they're volunteering in the community, chitchatting on a cross-country flight, attending a gallery opening or striking up conversation in the grocery store line, they carrying your brand's message out into the world every day.

Local has become a big thing -- even beyond the riveting land of local kale. Many brands are now placing a high priority on partnering with agencies who have people in their local community. That becomes a problem when all your people are located in one city -- and your client is across the country. A remote workforce expands the number of locations where the message spreads simply by increasing the number of pinpoints your people dot on a map. When you've got team members embedded in Houston, Omaha, Bismarck, Columbus, Portland and Charlotte, you can cover a heck of a lot more local ground. More people in more places = more opportunities to start the local conversations that lead to new business opportunities.

Remote teams reduce overhead costs. The thought of centralized offices going extinct is a big pill for many to swallow. But in reality, as the workforce decentralizes, the expense of retaining and maintaining space for exclusive use is going to make less and less sense. Energy costs will likely continue to climb, and leases in desirable areas will keep rising. With the advent of technologies that allow incoming calls to be seamlessly forwarded to mobile lines, even ease of communication is no longer a compelling argument in defense of a permanent office.

Having said that, the need for employees to gather and meet as a team (or with clients) will endure. If I had a big chunk of change to invest, I go all in with coworking spaces in creative communities. Not only do these spaces provide affordable place to gather and groove, they offer the ability to collaborate and connect with people beyond your team. Win-win-win.

What are your thoughts? When it comes to the remote workplace are you eager to adopt or hesitant to embrace? If you're a remote employee, what do you like about it? If you're an employer, what are the pros and cons in your mind?