So much has changed over the last 18 months. For many businesses and their employees, we saw a significant shift in the way they interact with their stakeholders. Perhaps none more significant than the rapid migration to a remote workforce, not by choice but out of necessity.
For some this will be temporary, but for many others it will be permanent, and is the new normal. All indications are that from the perspective of interconnectivity, the way we operate our businesses has permanently changed. The trend towards businesses having a ‘liquid’ workforce by enabling employees to work remotely has accelerated at a dizzying pace.
Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) announced to its employees that they can work remotely – indefinitely. Shopify (NYSE: SHOP) announced going forward it is “… a digital by default company”, even going so far as to offer employees $1,000 to set up a home office, and Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) has announced that it expects 50% of its employees to be working remotely within the next 5 – 10 years. Even Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F), a stalwart of manufacturing, has announced they will offer certain employees the flexibility to work remotely. These are not anomalies. A study by Gartner found that about 74 percent of the CFOs they surveyed, expect some of their employees who were forced to work from home because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic to continue working remotely after it ends.
The benefits of allowing people to work remotely aren't just anecdotal. A Stanford study found that in addition to saving “…almost $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing the amount of HQ office space, there was an astonishing increase in productivity, employee attrition decreased by 50 percent among the telecommuters, they took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days, and took less time off”. There were also the reduced carbon emissions from fewer vehicles clogging up the roads during the daily commute. When you consider a 2018 study on social and environmental responsibility that found 88% of customers will be more loyal to a company that supports social and environmental issues, for those businesses looking for carbon credits or wanting to endear themselves to their customer base with a demonstrable commitment to the environment, take note!
But do most people want to work remotely, exclusively? It appears to be a mix; many want to work remotely 100%, whereas others want a hybrid model that offers them the flexibility to work in the office some portion of the time and at home the balance. 81% of respondents in one study said they would be more loyal to their employer if they had flexible work options with 27% of workers going further by saying the ability to work from home is so important to them that they are willing to take a 10% to 20% pay cut to work remotely. Building off this, a 2021 LinkedIn poll found that going forward, 73% of respondents would prefer to return to a self-directed, hybrid model where they have the option to work a few days in/out of the office. These results mirror what Ford’s global employees preferred; a mix of in-person and remote work after the pandemic, and that many felt more productive and were happier working from home.
There is however, also a notable concern with remote work. There have been multiple studies on the mental health of people working remotely with worrisome findings. Remote workers reported feelings of isolation, anxiety, stress, fear, and depression. One study found that 45% of respondents said they feel less healthy mentally while working from home with 4 out of 5 workers finding it hard to ‘shut off’ in the evenings.
As businesses and employees navigate the rapid migration to a remote or hybrid workforce, they are having to figure out what that means; not only for themselves but also for each of their stakeholder groups. What works for one organization might not work for another. Clearly, there won't be a single model that works for everyone. And because of the variety and complexity of many of the issues needing to be addressed, a single coordinating position should be considered to ensure there is a consistent and coherent system across the organization; something very challenging to accomplish without a senior person coordinating these activities for the enterprise i.e., a Chief Remote Officer or C.R.O.
This brings us to ask, what is a chief remote officer and does it make sense for every business to have one? These are question’s organizations, from startups to global enterprises are exploring as they look forward.
A C.R.O. must have a broad base of expertise: human resources, information technology, organizational excellence, etc. In other words, they must have the business acumen to understand the outcomes the organization needs to achieve, and the understanding of how to position people to be successful; from both an emotional perspective and a technical one. How are they feeling about themselves, the organization, its people, and the work they do; and do they have the requisite tools that will enable them to be successful.
Although there are any number of ways, we might categorize all the issues that need to be evaluated and managed, I’ve chosen to break them into four key areas to highlight just a few of the issues needing to be considered:
a. Network and systems security – working from a home office, a coffee shop, or any public location poses greater security risks that need to be considered and mitigated. Many breaches can be attributed to human error. The best-intentioned people make mistakes and the opportunities for mistakes rise exponentially when employees are working remotely. Employees must be trained, and periodically retrained, in the fundamentals, and they must rely on checklists and other tools to keep the organization safe.
b. The protection of intellectual property – how do we ensue that sensitive materials or intellectual property (IP) is protected and safeguarded when accessed and shared outside of a relatively secure office environment.
c. Appropriate approval for licenses and subscriptions for the myriad of applications and programs we might use – what, if any, security protocols do we implement to allow/restrict users accessing or downloading: software, subscriptions, licenses, etc. This isn’t necessarily a financial decision or about cost control, it's also about security because of the potential exposure to malware or other nefarious issues that could damage the company’s network, lead to the theft of IP, or result in your network being held hostage for ransom.
d. Which technologies to use: Zoom/Webex/Teams/Adobe Connect, Jira/Trello/Redmine, Evernote, Google docs/MS Office, etc. Will there be a standard, a menu of acceptable options to select from, or will anything go?
e. The hardware each employee will use: laptops, phones, etc. Will there be an enterprise standard, or can employees choose, for example an iPhone or Android?
2. Home Office Setup:
a. What supplies and resources are needed for each person/function to set people up for success. Is there a model, and how was it developed and vetted, in isolation by leaders or in collaboration with employees?
b. Where should employees source needed supplies and resources; through a central purchasing function, directly with pre-approved suppliers, or wherever they want provided they stay within their allotted budget, etc.
3. People Management:
a. Supervision, up and down the corporate latter. How will we engage those who report to us and how will we be engaged by those we report to? Yesterday’s approach isn’t going to be effective when our reporting relationships are remote, and we don’t have face to face interactions. We aren’t going to see people struggling in the same way we did before.
b. Recruitment – if we create a more liquid workforce and open up the talent pool by removing location and relocation as a barrier, how will we onboard new employees; remotely, bringing people to a central office, or a combination?
c. How will people be positioned in roles? How will we ensure employees are positioned along the value chain to provide a seamless omnichannel experience?
d. Employee engagement – Employees may feel disconnected or isolated. What tools and techniques can we employ to instill a sense of belonging, community, and camaraderie? And maybe more importantly, how will we know if our people are feeling depressed, isolated, or discouraged? Will we have mechanisms to effectively help; will we have resources in-house or perhaps a through a confidential third-party who is qualified to help?
e. How will we measure and support productivity? Will those metrics and the process we use change if we are working remotely some or all the time?
f. Teamwork and collaboration – How will we identify the best ways to allow people to work more independently while also fostering creativity, collaboration, and teamwork?
g. Office hours – with people potentially working in different time zones, do we have set hours that align with our coworkers and customers, or do we provide flexibility? This will likely vary based on the unique circumstances with each business. To ensure our fellow employees are available when they’re needed, and to help mitigate burnout by employees who struggle to “shut-off”, will we install mechanisms that make it hard to work excess hours, for example, restricting access to email and the company’s servers, or even pop-ups reminding people to log off and stop working?
a. Carbon credits from reduced commutes - Reduced carbon emissions from less commute. How, or should we leverage this to connect the business with the stakeholders through shared values?
b. Savings on office space and associated utilities, provided we can renegotiate any leases, or sublet the spaces we no longer need.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all the potential issues needing to be managed, but instead a sample to illustrate the breadth and complexity of some of the potential issues needing to be considered when allowing employees to work remotely.
Based on the variety and complexity of these, and the myriad of other potential issues an organization might face, the C.R.O. will likely need to be an individual who can work across the business in a more matrix style, serving as a conduit to engage the expertise needed to facilitate having a remote workforce positioned to drive added value. They should be focused on ensuring successful outcomes for employees, the business, and all its stakeholders. Because this necessitates someone who can direct people across the business, they will need to have the positional authority to hold people accountable for doing what needs to be done. This is not a role that can succeed by driving results through influence alone.
Any organization facing some, or all these issues, should consider having someone with the expertise to provide them with this leadership. For larger organizations, a full-time dedicated position might be best. For smaller organizations, an outsourced person who can provide them this service on an as needed basis might be the best approach.
That the world has shifted is abundantly clear, and how organizations choose to respond will be a significant determinant of whether they will thrive or struggle, perhaps becoming a victim of ‘The Great Resignation’. Employees always have a choice and their options have never been so great. Whether or not to have a Chief Remote Officer might be the most important decision leaders make going forward.
About the author: Mark Fitzsimmons
Mark is president of 360 degrees Management Consultants. Through his 20+ year career working with businesses ranging from startups and privately owned businesses to government and Fortune 500 companies, Mark has extensive experience creating value through improvements to operations, quality, marketing, and customer experience strategies. He writes about the issues that impact organizational excellence.