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Greenville Business Magazine

The rise of the remote worker is a win-win for some employees and businesses

Feb 05, 2020 12:04PM ● By Chris Haire

Your pajamas—they're comfortable. Especially during the cold winter months. In fact, one of the most difficult tasks you face every day is slipping out of your PJs and putting on your work clothes. Yes, you like to look your best at the office, and you would never ever venture out in public in your bedtime uni—you don't want to show up on the People of Walmart page. But if you could stay in your jammies all day, wouldn't you want to?

For some folks, that's exactly what they do. And if they don't, they could. 

Who are these people, you ask? Well, they're the men and women who make up the rapidly growing number of remote workers across the U.S. and right here in the beautiful Palmetto State. 

According to a joint 2019 report from FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics, the number of people working remotely has increased 91% over the past decade and 44% over the past five years. "I think it's fair to say that we've been expecting an acceleration in remote work for a couple of decades and to say we're in it now in earnest," says Mark Maltarich, associate professor of management at the University of South Carolina. 

And the reason for this increase is rather apparent: it just makes good business sense. 

For one, remote workers are more productive workers, or at least that's the word from the flexible workspace company IWG, which claims that "85 percent of businesses confirm that productivity has increased in their business because of greater flexibility." Even more impressive, "63 percent of those surveyed report at least a 21 percent improvement in productivity because of flexible working." Some other claims: remote work lowers operating costs and increases employee satisfaction. 

Consider the case of Jennifer Bacon Clark, a Greenville-based content marketing manager for TaxJar, a firm that helps e-commerce sites manage sales taxes.

"Working remotely is absolutely the best situation for me," Clark says. "My entire company is remote, so there is no feeling like I'm missing out on the office environment as the only one who works from home. 

Given the fact Clark works for a fully distributed company, employees don't meet face-to-face at the office everyday. "You have to be proactive and purposeful about making connections with people. However, my company does an amazing job at creating social networking opportunities for us both in-person and via communication tools and software," she says. "I know what my coworkers' kids dressed up as for Halloween, as well as many of their favorite bands, TV shows and movies, similarly to if I had a group around me in cubicles."

Clark credits the ability to work remotely with increasing her work-hour productivity. "I can turn everyone off if need be and focus, which can't happen in an open office environment. Someone will always inevitably stop by," she says. 

Remote work has also helped her maintain a better work-life balance. "I can also work whenever I want, so if I need to take time off for my child's school presentation, I can make up the work at a later hour and not be tied to an 8:30-5:30 schedule," Clarks adds. "I'm still just as productive if I work at 7 a.m. or 7 p.m. and can tailor my schedule around my family life."

However, remote work may not be the ideal situation for workers who need supervision or who are prone to finding new and interesting ways to avoid working altogether—we know that doesn't include you, of course. "Working remotely is very different from working in a typical office environment in the fact that productivity relies solely on my work ethic," says Brandt Prince, a senior software analyst for Virginia-based Favor TechConsulting. "I am not being watched for eight hours and I am not worried about a boss coming around looking over my shoulder."

For Prince, a former Marine, being disciplined is not a challenge. However, there are some obstacles. "My cats like to hang out with me and really enjoy walking in between my body and my keyboard, so I am usually moving cats around for about 10 minutes a day," he says. "Also during spring break, holidays and summer vacation, my son is out of school which adds a slight distraction."

Like Clark, Prince likes having a flexible schedule which allows him to schedule things like doctor's appointments with more ease. He also likes avoiding the increasingly jammed Charleston-area traffic. And similar to the TaxJar employee, Prince says that the majority of his co-workers are remote as well. 

The work-from-home lifestyle has apparently worked so well for Prince that his wife has recently begun doing the same. It's been a case of deja vu. "I am seeing her deal with some of the same struggles I had at first," he says. "She is working more than she would, she feels pressured to get stuff done, and she does not like me popping in her office randomly during the day."

He adds, "The cats have now moved on to bothering her, so she has set up a few cat beds in her office."

All talk of meddling kitty cats aside, given the pluses, what's prevented more companies from going remote earlier? 

"Companies recognized some of the benefits long ago, but had some concerns that took a while to get over," Maltarich says. "First, I think there was just a general reluctance to be on the cutting edge of changing work structure so drastically. As more companies have had success with remote working, and others see that the benefits really do materialize, more companies are willing to take a risk."

"Second, low unemployment has made it necessary to find ways to be competitive in the labor market, and the opportunity to work remotely at least sometimes is seen as offering some flexibility that is attractive to candidates, especially younger ones," he adds. "Third, the experience gained from the earliest adopters has allowed companies to better understand how to manage a remote workforce, both in terms of policy and infrastructure like VPNs and the like, there are more models of how to do it successfully. Technology has played a big role in this acceleration."

While Maltarich notes that remote workers allow companies to reduce their need for office space, especially those "needing space in high-rent districts," such practices allow firms to "draw from a broader labor pool that isn't constrained by location." That means a company can hire the best people no matter where they are located.

However, Maltarich does mention one remote-work positive that is generally not mentioned: "There's another benefit in physical security. Having your entire workforce co-located increases risk. Some companies saw this tragically during 9/11, but the idea would extend to natural disasters or even temporary closings due to bad weather or smaller problems."

According to Maltarich, the trend toward more remote work opportunities isn't waning just , but it's coming. "My view is that a lot of things like this swing back and forth," he says. "As companies start to implement more remote work policies, they will start to see problems on the margin."

"For instance, companies recognize the importance of culture to competitive advantage, but it's unclear how to manage culture when there is less social contact among workers. So they might see some loosening of culture," Maltarich says. "Difficulties in monitoring remote workers' behavior make it likely that some companies will experience problems with inconsistent work or behavior that violates policies. As companies race to expand their remote workforce, it seems inevitable to me that some will go too far."

He adds, "Eventually, companies will find a balance and figure out which jobs and workers remote work is best suited for, as well as how to manage it."