Worker Autonomy and the Rampant Rise of Remote Work

home office
This article is contributed by Drew Heikkila.

It used to be that the idea of working from home was reserved for the lucky few: the aloof artist who wakes up late and paints into the night, or the dedicated writer who spends every morning banging away at a typewriter. However, modern technology, ever the great equalizer, has eliminated such an antiquated notion.

Coffee shops, fast food restaurants, hotels, hospitals, public parks – many of these venues provide free Wi-Fi connections, bestowing millions across the globe with the ability to stay connected and work from virtually anywhere. The ability to balance work and life more holistically is catching on, giving rise to the digital nomad in some – though for others, remote work provides an entirely new set of problems.

Autonomy and The Work-Life Balance

The driving force behind the work-from-home movement is the concept of work-life balance, especially for Millennials, but increasingly in other demographics as well. Whether the Millennial child of a divorced household who saw the ill-effects of overwork and long office hours on their own parents, or the parents themselves wanting to spend more time with children and/or grandchildren, many are placing an emphasis on finding a job that works for the lifestyle they want to live. The term “digital nomad” refers to people who have harnessed technology to allow them to travel and work from wherever they want – simply because it’s possible and because that type of freedom is important to them.

Business author Daniel Pink believes that all workers, not just Millennials, truly want three simple things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Beyond the opportunity to excel at and master whatever we put our minds to, and the knowledge that there is purpose in our work, every human being wants the autonomy to work in a manner most conducive to themselves. So, while some might see the term “work-life balance” as a misnomer (especially when people like digital nomads seem to be spending their lives trying to find somewhere they’re able to work from), they would do well to remember that, to many, it’s not necessarily about balancing quantity between the two. Having a good work-life balance means achieving the autonomy that allows you to decide both how to work, and how to live – not just one or the other.

No Escape: Remote Work On the Rise

Though there are varying opinions on whether remote work is a beneficial trend, the fact is that it’s seeing no sign of slowing down. According to both Canadian and U.S. Government figures, work-from-home popularity is catching on. Combined statistics from both countries show that, on average:

  • More than 1 in 5 university graduates worked at home in 2008

  • Between 1997 and 2010 the percentage of workers who worked at least one day from home, who worked exclusively from home, and who worked both from home and the office grew.

    • The percentage of all workers who worked at least one day from home per week increased from 7% to 9.5%

    • The population working exclusively from home increased from 4.8% to 6.6%

    • The population working both at home and at another location increased from 2.2% to 2.8% of all workers

  • Growth in work-from-home varies widely by industry. Home-based work in computer, engineering, and science occupations increased by 69% between 2000 and 2010.

  • About one-fourth of home-based workers are in management, business, and financial occupations

  • The most recent surveys have shown that, on average, 23% of people, almost 1 in 4, do some or all of their work at home.

Perhaps the most interesting statistical analysis comes from GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, who interpreted U.S. Census data and found that “regular work-at-home, among the non-self-employed population has grown by 103% since 2005 and 6.5% in 2014.” They also found that “80% to 90% of the U.S. workforce says they would like to telework at least part time.”

Thanks to beneficial business technologies like cloud-accounting software for the small, at-home business person, to websites dedicated to facilitating the digital nomad lifestyle, there have never been more tools, resources, and opportunities for remote work. So what’s stopping the work-from-home revolution from fully taking over? The simple answer is that it just doesn’t work for everybody.

Cons of Working from home:

Some companies are very particular about how they promote culture to employees. They don’t want aspects and nuances of particular company operations or vendor relationships to go overlooked. For these companies, even utilization of enterprise systems such as Slack or videoconferences via Skype just don’t seem to do the trick. Some employers want their workers to communicate and collaborate as a team on a consistent basis, and remote work simply isn’t conducive to that. Other benefits of the team environment setting include reduction in stress when that stress is shared, and employees feeling like they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Alternatively, you may find that the employee, rather than the employer, desires a collaborative environment. “Working from home can lead to a feeling of isolation, and while the lack of watercooler chatter might benefit some, those who thrive in a collaborative office setting might be negatively impacted,” writes Deanna Fox in an article for Times Union.

Those who don’t want to interact much with other workers might think that working from home is the silver bullet, but remote work brings problems for them as well. Professor Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University demonstrated that those working at home can expect to be promoted at about half the rate (according to his nine-month, 250 employee study) as colleagues who work in the office.

“It may be a case, ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” Professor Bloom says. “Or it might be that you’re not drinking in the bar with your boss. Or it could be you’re not managing your employees as well if you’re not around them.”

Whatever the reason, a true “work-only-from-home” arrangement might just not work out for some, and, in even the most beneficial cases, there will always be a downside. Nevertheless, offices and managers may find that the positives outweigh the negatives.

Pros of working from home:

According to Global Workplace Analytics, an estimated three million American professionals never set foot in an office (besides the one in their own homes), and about 54% of them report that they’re happier because of it. In fact, a recent study conducted by researchers from Stanford found that letting employees work from home made them happier, less likely to quit, and more productive. That alone equates to fewer costs related to turnover, idle time, and supply line hang-ups. Who wouldn’t want to gain more productive employees while saving money?

Looking further than simple cost savings, remote work allows for many other benefits. The trend is obviously greener than its commuting counterpart, and has been linked to reductions in carbon emissions and energy usage. In the U.S., 4.2 billion hours are spent driving in traffic every year, costing $78 billion in productivity, consuming about 2.9 billion gallons of gasoline, and releasing 58 million pounds of Co2 into the atmosphere every year, according to Forbes.

Quebec resident Dwight Yachuk knows the commute all-too-well. He used to spend an hour or more driving into Ottawa from Val-des-Monts every day, and it wasn’t for him. Instead of retiring, his supervisor worked out an arrangement for him.

“I don’t see any reason to ever retire now, because as far as I’m concerned I am retired. I’m working from home. So that’s it,” Yachuk told CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning.

More work-from-home arrangements might allow companies to hold on to spectacular employees such as Yachuk well-beyond retirement age. By eliminating the problem of physical distance, telework opens up whole new doors for the elderly, as well as for those with deteriorating mobility.

This is not just a benefit for employees, it allows businesses to select from a wider talent pool, especially in the case of one-off projects that require more expertise than your staff can handle for less than the time than you’re ready to hire full-time employees for. More widespread utilization of remote workers and citizen developers is one proposed solution to the IT skills gap.

Working from home is the future

Regardless of how you frame it, working from home is a large part of the future. By 2017, it’s predicted that 1.3 billion workers, or 37% of the world’s working population, will be working remotely. Employers that don’t offer work-from-home opportunities will fall behind the global marketplace, losing out on prime choice of prospective employees, as well as the benefits of increased productivity and decreased overhead cost.

It’s important to remember that working from home isn’t for everybody – and that even with the added benefits of a better work-life balance, many employees want to spend at least some of their time in the office, desiring the structure and directive that comes onsite from managers and contemporaries. Still, there’s value in recognizing that nobody knows how you work better than you. The autonomy to alter and optimize one’s working conditions means that every individual is going to be different, and that there’s no truly “right” or wrong “way” to do things. So while setting up your own rules and routines while working remotely is a must, realize that there are infinite permutations and that it may take a while to find the combination that’s just right for you. That’s autonomy.

Do you work from home? Do you hire or manage remote employees? Share your experiences with remote work in the comments below.

Author bio: Andy is a freelance writer, digital native, and futurist thinker with dreams of working full time from home some day. He’s recently become fascinated by the Korean dish kimchi. Follow him on Twitter @AndyO_TheHammer.

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