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Guest blog by Chris Anania, Technology Infrastructure Leader and Remote Manager

As a remote worker for seven years and a manager of remote workers for the last two years, I’ve been privy to many of the ins and outs of remote working, as well as having been part of this important new way of work for millions of Americans.

Recent headlines speak of Fortune 500 companies eliminating remote worker positions, reversing years of trends that saw the remote workforce grow in 2015 to more than 24% of U.S. workers who worked fully or partially from home. In 2016, that number ticked down two percentage points.

What gives?

For the most part, the decision by some companies to bring workers back in-house is a reactive response designed to increase innovation. The idea is that employees, working elbow-to-elbow, tend to be more creative and innovative. Some companies have made public announcements about their decisions and others have used corporate realignments to make the shift quietly.

This sudden change in direction seems contradictory. After all, these are the same companies that are selling products to rabid customer bases who want to be able to remotely access anything from anywhere at any time. Isn’t that the rally cry of up-and-coming millennials?

Seemingly, large tech companies have figured out the formula for innovation and are applying algorithms to increase human interactions in the office to produce the conditions necessary to achieve serendipity. If you look at the definition of “serendipity,” you’ll find that it’s based on luck and chance—not a real plan.

Having an algorithm decide who I should sit next to at lunch just seems spooky. And yes, articles on this subject do suggest that innovation drives 10 times more revenue than productivity does (remote workers tend to be much more productive than their in-office counterparts, according to research). But such thinking begs the question that if innovation can only happen with employees in the office, then how does one explain open source projects? We would not have software like Linux or OpenStack without remote workers, and they were innovated by many people who never met each other.

Remote Workers Are More Productive

The good news for remote workers and the companies that employ them is that recent findings suggest they are 20% more productive and engaged than their in-office brethren. The increased productivity is attributed to less distractions in the home office, while the strength of engagement is generally due to the attributes inherent to being a successful remote worker in the first place See my previous article, What It Takes to Work (and Manage) Remotely, for more details.

Employees that have the opportunity to work from home tend to take less sick time, work longer days, and work through lunch. This of course requires the discipline of the employee to balance this, or it will yield an unhealthy result. Even so, WFH (“Work from Home”) is still one of the most requested benefits as it gives employees a sense of freedom to manage their own time, work during their most productive hours, deal with child care, etc.

Some people are even willing to take a pay cut for this benefit. By having a telecommuter/WFH policy, companies gain access to geographical/global talent so they can pick the most skilled and highly productive workers.

A Model for Success?

Just as remote working is not for everyone—some workers flourish in remote settings while others do not—in the end, whether a company chooses to employ remote workers, really boils down to that company’s specific needs and its strategic direction. Companies are made up of all different types of people with their own skill sets and their own preferences for the kinds of work environments that make them the most intuitive and productive. Why then would a company want to limit this?

While innovation may be increased with people in the office, it is not necessarily what all people want—and that’s the kind of thing that can make talent leave one company for another company that offers what said talent wants. Clearly, some sort of hybrid model that allows employees to work from home a percentage of their time (and if effective, increase that percentage) seems appropriate. Studies show that people who work from home 20% of the time are the most productive, so maybe that’s a good starting point.

For More Information

If you have questions about remote working or managing, and how it might apply to your teams or your company, contact Chris Anania through InMail via his Linkedin profile.