Remote working is often cited as a panacea for everything from work-life balance and staff retention to urban planning and the global environment, but it’s still very much in the minority.
Most remote workers are self-employed, perform roles which occur offsite or only do so infrequently, so why is it that remote working has not taken off in the way that its promoters would expect and what can be done to improve the situation.
For employees, the benefits of homeworking are obvious, more time with the family, less time commuting and the ability to plan out your own working day give you more control and let you match your own daily energy cycles, maximising productivity.
For companies, increase productivity compared with desk-based teams, staff stickiness and a reduction in required seat space are obvious benefits.
Keller Williams Ireland, who offer shared services and an office-based hub for independent estate agents, was originally set up around a centralised office hub, where agents would operate when not out at viewings.
However, the company quickly found that its remote agents were more effective and happier so is now promoting the benefits of remote working, especially as Keller Williams agents cover a wide geographical area.
So what’s stopping more companies adopting the practice and giving more employees the chance to work from home? And why has Keller Williams found the practice so beneficial?
Overcoming the barriers to remote working
Research in the US, where more than 16% of with workforce work remotely, identified 7 key barriers to successful remote working at an organisational level.
Firstly, remote working doesn’t suit every role. Where social interaction and collaboration are key, especially where coaching and development of staff are involved, being centrally located is more beneficial.
Obviously, onsite and travelling roles are very suited to remote working, as do repetitive and simple IT tasks, where cloud-based communications make location irrelevant.
In Keller Williams case, Agents tend to work from home, whereas management and administration and more effective when centrally located as problems can be solved easier when everyone is in the same place.
Trust and accountability
One of the major barriers to remote working is the legacy command and control culture and ( oddly) emphasising personal accountability, especially within hierarchies. Managers are expected to know what’s going on in their departments and how people are performing, and that’s just easier when you can physically see your team and what they are up to.
Even extensive use of performance monitoring such as keystroke loggers and decentralised call centre software has its limits, and we’ve all been guilty of believing others are “gaming the system”, which leads to a nagging sense of doubt.
Building trust is not easy and it’s a very personal thing, meaning we need to know our team personally and have experienced their integrity before we can fully trust them.
In this case, a progressive move towards remote working, whether following a period of office-based work or splitting time between work and home can demonstrate integrity and honesty allowing trust to be developed and a level of comfort attained.
The other side is accountability, which again, suits some businesses more than others. Task-based roles work well with high levels of automated metrics which are visible on a hierarchical level.
Call centres are obvious examples of this, where call volumes, duration, outcomes etc. can be seen on a personal, team or organisation-wide level, simplifying accountability and performance management.
The other option is outcome-based pay scales, such as piecework or self-employment, but whilst these are effective in terms of focussing effort and minimising risk, they bring their own problems, and, are as valid for office-based staff.
A lot has been written about Culture, with one researcher calculating that there were over 6,000 different definitions of what culture really is!
In simple terms, however, it’s a set of shared beliefs and rules we all follow. We don’t need to be told stealing is wrong, it’s embedded in our moral code from birth.
This is why culture is so important to trust and management. You don’t need to closely supervise someone who thinks and acts the way you do.
Having a culture of customer satisfaction across the organisation leads to peer acceptance of certain behaviours and rejection of others, minimising the need for explicit rules and regulations and allowing greater autonomy for their teams.
Keller Williams is built on its culture and strives to reinforce its culture across those who operate under its umbrella. Most of these are fundamental, seeking a win-win solution and putting the customer first being obvious examples, but recognising that others have a valid voice and that we succeed through others show a deeper commitment to collective success, which is essential in building trust.
What’s important, however, is demonstrating culture throughout the organisation.
Culture is not driven by slogans and posters on the wall, but by the behaviours and stories we experience every day. Everyone has to be mindful of how their actions reflect the culture that you’re trying to build.
And everyone needs to be accountable for actions which breach the cultural norms, no matter where they sit in the organisation.
Effective cloud systems
Cloud based systems have long been touted as the future of modern working, but still, the vast majority of users prefer the simplicity and convenience of desk-based utilities.
Modern high-speed broadband has definitely improved the stability of the systems, but was has really brought cloud-based systems is the ability to perform complex workflows across diverse browser-based systems.
CRM’s like Salesforce and Zoho allow a unified approach to communications, integrating email, social media and VoIP into a single portal improving both visibility of consumer interaction with performance management metrics, simplifying tasks, record keeping and management.
And this is becoming the norm with a host of specialist applications being created to meet the needs of verticals, from healthcare to finance to marketing.
Keller Williams’ Command infrastructure offers a cloud-based environment capable of performing, automating and simplifying most of the back-office functions needed for estate agency from managing listings and contact databases through to creating and automating emails and social media campaigns and the commercial and financial management of a complex business.
More importantly, these tools can be accessed by staff wherever they are, with both desktop, tablet and mobile versions.
Integrations sit at the heart of the capabilities and functionalities allowing listings to be automatically updated on third party property marketplaces and external accounting packages to be linked and social media campaigns scheduled and posted over linked social media accounts.
This level of integration also boosts the richness of the recorded data, giving, for example, clear indications not only of how many people opened an email campaign but also who.
There are certain roles than lend themselves to being remote, and some that don’t. Everyone wants to be able to avoid the morning commute, but that doesn’t mean their role can be done remotely.
For estate agents, a remote location makes total sense, most of the interaction is either remote, via phone, online or email, or face to face in the property being sold, so having an office is both expensive and unnecessary.
Wide range of technical knowledge
Unless a role is very specific and narrow, it’s likely that an independent worker will need to fulfil additional tasks which are more generalised, as external support is not available.
Agents with Keller Williams manage their own marketing, listings and financial management for example, as specialist support is centralised.
The agent needs to both understand what’s required, but also why, as this will aid in motivation and help the agent to operate outside of the ordinary.
This requires three things
- A clear understanding of the importance of the task. What’s the value of the task to the agent and the company
- Effective training in the use of any systems involved and the fundamentals underpinning them.
- Reinforcement from others that the tasks are effective and worth spending time on.
Loneliness and social isolation.
People are naturally gregarious, so people can become isolated and feel lonely. They can also feel out of the loop, especially if they feel office-based staff are treated better than remote workers. Obviously, regular meeting in the office or social events are a key to any team-building process, particularly for a dispersed organisation, but there are other ways.
Creating virtual teams or giving remote workers an office-based sponsor/mentor, can help to alleviate the sense of isolation, but, as remote staff are often more senior, why not do as Keller Williams does and have remote staff mentor junior staff.
Not only does this ensure that knowledge is retained within the organisation and ensure that remote staff feel involved in the long term future of the business, but it also reinforces that remote working is a benefit to be earned.
Remote working effectively.
Working from home can be a great way to motivate and improve the performance of staff, but it takes a lot of thought and effort to get right.
Having the right culture across the company goes a long way to building the trust and work practices needed to work effectively away from your peers.
A sense of community and inclusion is also needed to ensure staff don’t feel isolated.
Finally, careful job design, effective and connected tools are needed to make sure that team members can work autonomously away from centralised support resources.