Opinion by Mike Elgan

There's no such thing as a 'remote' employee

When everyone is remote at least part of the time, the whole idea of a remote worker is obsolete.

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Opinion by Mike Elgan

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Over the next year or two, some of your best employees may quit and find work elsewhere for a simple reason: They want to work from home full time.

During the past 10 years, telecommuting has gone up – doubling, in fact, with growth of 115% between 2005 and 2015, according to the US Census Bureau.

But when Yahoo and IBM famously banned telecommuting, some assumed the trend toward increasing work-from-home policies would be thrown into reverse. That assumption is a big mistake.

The telecommuting trend will continue. More than that: Companies will be increasingly forced to allow employees to work from outside the office. This trend obviously has major implications for security and management. 

Here comes the ‘M word'

We're all tired of hearing cliches about the so-called "millennials," with their mobile-first habits, experience-economy spending and avocado toast.

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But the reality is that with each passing year a new crop of employees enter the workforce, and an older crop retires. This is really how big demographic shifts happen, through generational churn, rather than the learning of new behaviors by everyone in the middle.

While most stereotypes about millennials are false, one of them is true: Millennials are quicker to change jobs than any previous generation.

A Gallup poll in 2016 concluded that millennials (those born between born between 1980 and 1996) are the "job-hopping generation." The generation of employees at or approaching retirement age are least likely to job-hop.

As a result, employees as a group become more likely to leave and get another job with each passing year.

Millennial job-hopping is misunderstood as being a function of company disloyalty, impatience or a fickle attitude toward career. But that misses the mark. The attitude is an inevitable outcome of the mobile revolution. 

In the past, the key to a better life was a better job. You did whatever it took to rise in your career and sacrificed your happiness from 9 to 5 each work day, all so you could make enough money to splurge on your private life – home, vacations, cars and toys. 

But the mobile revolution has changed this equation entirely. Here's what smartphones, home Wi-Fi and mobile devices wrought:

  1. Mobility blurs the line between work time and personal time. People work during their "time off" and do personal tasks and communication while "at work." Work hours and non-work hours blend together into a totality of one's whole life.
  2. Mobile devices and the world of social apps (social networks and messaging, mostly) means that the people you're with in the room aren't the only people you're "with." Family friends and non-present co-workers are always "right there," accessible through any communications medium.
  3. Smartphone cameras and the "selfie industrial complex" have diminished the worth of material possessions while boosting the value of life experiences. As people pursue better experiences in life, bad experiences and environments at work become increasingly unacceptable.

With each passing year, employees increase their boldness in saying: "Give me a better work environment or I'll find an employer who will."

The quiet revolutions

The Canadian IT services company Softchoice published the results this summer of a study looking at workplace trends, and found some seriously consequential desires and expectations among North American enterprise and business employees. 

A whopping three-quarters of those surveyed (74%) said they would quit their job to work for an organization that allows them to work remotely more often. And 85% said they expect their employers to provide them with the technology that allows them to work from anywhere.

They want and expect that technology to work. More than three-quarters (78%) said they experience frequent technical hurdles to better collaboration.

Finally, millennials are twice as likely as boomers to feel productive in a home office. And while there are surely correlations between "feeling" productive and actually being productive, it's also part of employee satisfaction. If employees don't feel productive, they won't be happy in their jobs.

While enterprise managers, executives and IT professionals of all kinds tend to look at the gradual upward trend in actual telecommuting, it's important to keep in mind the rapidly shifting attitudes and intentions of the workforce. A great many people not currently working from home expect to do so shortly.

Another hidden trend is the invisible third option: entrepreneurship.

While the statistics look at telecommuting hours vs. non-telecommuting hours among enterprise employees, concerns about employee retention should also account for those who leave to start their own businesses. Increasingly, the "drop-out" factor is part of the millennial drive for improving the quality of life.

In other words, an increasing number of millennials see self-employment as an alternative to non-remote work.

With the rise of the digital nomad lifestyle, entrepreneurship is increasingly available (because living cheaper abroad enables financial security while new businesses are boot-strapped). 

These trends don't affect all professions equally. For example, software engineering is often solitary work (better done in a distraction-free environment, as in a home office). And many developers have the skills to start a new business.

That means companies will have to work increasingly hard to give software engineers the work life they want, often by way of policies and infrastructure that facilitate working from home.

New attitude: There's no such thing as ‘remote work’

Most enterprises are becoming so globalized that even the concept of "remote" makes no sense. When the whole world is connected, only astronauts are "remote workers."

Every business of any significant size has multiple offices. And while that means the employees who work in different offices are theoretically "remote" from each other, the necessity to connect these groups with secure, reliable infrastructure is absolute.

While employees are at home working, or working even on vacations, they're every bit as "remote" as a so-called telecommuter. In other words, "remote work" is universal, a matter of degree rather than kind.

That's one reason why resistance to remote work is dangerous. To assume the primacy of face-to-face interaction between colleagues is to fail to provide collaborative tools to connect employees in offices down the hall, on a different floor, at another office or on the other side of the world.

It's best to reduce the importance of the work-home dichotomy, and instead think about flex work and to create the work spaces and infrastructure that allow both deep, solitary, focused work, and collaboration.

In that mindset, a telecommuter is just another employee like any other. And a non-telecommuter is just like a telecommuter, at least part of the time.

It's time to focus on connecting employees who are separate from each other for whatever reason – while keeping in mind that retaining the best employees is less about salary and more about the lifestyle they have while at work and at home.

If you want to keep your best employees, you may have to let them go home.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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