Striking the right balance for successful remote working

If there’s a phrase likely to get some managers twitchier than ‘remote working’, I’m yet to hear it. Despite 1.5 million people in the UK taking advantage of some form of remote or flexible working, many businesses still aren’t open to it. In the anti-remote work camp is, most notably, Yahoo. CEO Marissa Mayer caused international uproar when she threw the gauntlet down against remote working back in 2013. Big organisations like Reddit and IBM followed suit, creating policies against remote working and calling employees back into the office.

While the headline-hitting moves seem controversial, in reality, they aren’t. 47% of UK businesses don’t encourage any form of flexible working[1]. Yet 4 million UK workers wish they could work at home at least one day a week. And 70% say it makes a job more attractive[2]. So why aren’t more businesses taking advantage of it?

Some of the top reasons for businesses not wanting to offer remote working include:

  • Company culture: it’s hard to build a culture if your employees aren’t all sat in the same room as you. And if you don’t bump into each in the kitchen, or sit together during meetings, will you build the same kind of relationship as in-house employees do?
  • Communication: need to ask a quick question? Well, if someone isn’t sat near you, it can take a whole lot longer. And what if they don’t answer their phone or reply to your email? You might not be able to complete your work on time.
  • Reliability: trust is hard to earn, and if you don’t see someone every day, how do you know that they’ll produce a high quality of work for you? If someone isn’t coming into the office every day, could they just disappear without a trace, and stop answering your emails?
  • Management and accountability: managing a team in-house can be hard enough, but when you add remote workers to the mix, things get even more complex. Similarly, if people don’t feel they’re ‘part’ of your company, are they going to hold themselves accountable for their work?
  • Productivity: when someone’s working from home, you have very little insight into what they’re doing all day. You don’t know how hard they’re working, how long they’re working for, and whether they’re getting as much achieved as in-house employees are.
  • Security: from lost laptops to hacked connectivity, security risks increase exponentially when you have remote workers.

On the face of it, these concerns appear well-founded. Of course you want a team that’s going to suit your company, work well on projects, accept responsibility, work productively and efficiently, and not put your company data at risk. But we don’t live in a world where the only form of communication is over the phone or face-to-face. Today’s technology protects us from mislaid laptops and dodgy connections. We have apps and tools coming out of our ears, each professing to improve productivity and link up remote teams. So, what’s stopping a rush towards remote working?

Changing workstyles don’t fit with traditional workplaces

As a business leader or manager, it’s easy to get spooked by the term remote working. Visions of employees sat binge-watching Netflix spring to mind, as do leisurely lunches, strolls to the park, and numerous doctor-dentist-hairdresser appointments. But gone are the days of working from home being synonymous with having a day off. Younger generations are entering the workplace and their expectations are wildly different to their predecessors. Cultural, economic and social factors are influencing how people want to work, and traditional structures don’t hold up anymore.

Flexible working isn’t just leaving early to do the school run or working at home while the dishwasher gets fixed. There are digital nomads, travelling the world while producing high quality work. There are virtual teams, where entire projects are managed by people in disparate locations. And there are millennials, who put a greater emphasis on work-life balance, and expect to work flexibly at the very least.

But remote working isn’t just one of those ‘millennial’ things. Around 14.1 million people in Britain want flexibility in their working hours or location – around half of the working population.

In addition to generational expectations changing, the workplace itself is too. Current trends see businesses knock down walls to create open plan offices, in an attempt to encourage collaborative working. However, this method is far too simplistic. Open-plan offices without private spaces for deep work simply create more issues for employees. As revealed in the Steelcase Global Report, the UK has the most open office layouts in the world, yet falls far below the average for offering access to meeting rooms.

So, what does this do for employees? Well, it reduces productivity. The number of people who can’t focus at their desk rose by 16% between 2008 and 2014[3]. Office workers lose 86 minutes a day due to distractions[4]. And 31% of workers have to physically leave the office to do productive work[5]. If businesses aren’t in a position to change their office layout, then what? Buy all their employees noise-cancelling headphones and get on with it?

Or, you implement remote working policies. You let employees get the best from working in teams in the office, then give them time alone to concentrate on deep work. A study with senior HR leaders revealed that 60% believe the introduction of remote working practices would increase productivity.

After the 2014 flexible working policies were introduced, we conducted some research into the workplace. We found that 36% of those surveyed were more productive, over a third were more motivated and 52% felt their work-life balance was improved by flexible working.

How to make remote working work

At Microsoft, we’re big advocates of remote working. We know that each individual has their own preferences of where, when and how they want to work. But equally, we know that remote working has pitfalls. The key to making it work is striking the right balance. You need to offer employees a combination of opportunities: enough privacy and enough teamwork. Getting this right enables productivity, creativity, deep work, innovation and teambuilding.

From our own transformational journey, and our work with our customers, we know that technology plays a key role. And in our latest research report on building a culture for digital transformation, we show how businesses can incorporate new technologies, without creating anxiety and distrust.  Office 365 gives employees the tools they need to stay connected, secure and creative wherever they are. Microsoft Teams, for example, is a hub for all team and project-based activities. From video calls and chatting over IM, to sharing documents and editing them, it gives employees the sense of being in an office – even when they’re in their local coffee shop. Likewise, Word, Excel and PowerPoint let your employees create, edit and share files from wherever they are, meaning teamwork can continue, even when the team isn’t together. Skype for Business aids with communication, showing your colleagues whether you’re available, in a meeting, away from your computer, or even locked down in deep work.

We designed platforms like Yammer and Microsoft Teams specifically for remote workers. We know that workstyles and preferences are changing – so your technology needs to change as well. It means that you don’t need your employees in the same place all the time. So, you can help your employees be happier, less stressed and more productive.

But we also know that platforms and software aren’t enough on their own. If people are going to work remotely, they need devices that support this. Using a desktop PC in the office, then working on a personal laptop at home isn’t the most secure or productive solution. So, we’re developing our security solutions and productivity tools in sync with our devices. We know that one must work intrinsically with the other, if an employee is going to stay productive wherever they are.
Discover more about how Microsoft solutions can help your employees stay productive, happy and creative, regardless of where they are


[1] Flexible Working 2017, Powwownow, 2017

[2] Flexible Working 2017, Powwownow, 2017