The 3 Greatest Myths About Remote Work (And the Metrics that Prove them Wrong)

It’s plain to see that remote work, hybrid workplaces, and virtual-first operations are the future of work in 2022 and beyond. The combination of workforce preferences and real estate savings are motivating employers around the world to rethink when and where their employees should be working. In fact, Gallup predicts that less than a quarter of remote-capable jobs in the U.S. will permanently go back to the office.

But is workplace flexibility the right choice for your company? You’ve probably heard the enticing statistics about how higher levels of remote work increase productivity and employee retention in companies, but is that a guarantee for your team? What if you undergo the monumental change management process to convert your operations from proximity-based to virtual, only to learn that it was a mistake in a few years? Overall, how will you know if hybrid or remote-first working is actually successful and sustainable for your team?

Concerns and hesitations about permanently allowing employees to work from home are very understandable, because, on average, they are based on individual perceptions and experiences. In fact, there are three primary myths that are circulating through our society about remote work that are inaccurately influencing the great “remote versus return” debate: 

Myth #1: Employees need to return to the office to strengthen productivity and culture

One of the best kept secrets about remote work is that it is still work. It’s easy to assume that workers won’t be as motivated or accountable without the supervision of a manager, but, typically, the opposite is true. So, even though managers haven’t been able to physically supervise operational processes while their staff was working from home, it doesn’t mean that the workers weren’t building quality results, trust, or camaraderie during that time. Distributed teams may not share time and location any more, but the information, goals, and activities that teams still share are usually more than enough to maintain their connection and output. 

Myth #2: Only introverts like working from home

Unfortunately, because the majority of the world started working remotely for the first time during the pandemic, we often conflate the experience of working remotely with feeling isolated. But, in typical circumstances, workplace flexibility is just that — flexible. It means that professionals can work from a variety of environments, each one with unique benefits for various types of people and productivity. So, yes, sometimes that’s working alone in a home office, but if you’re a socially-motivated extrovert, work instead from a bustling coworking space. Or if you feel comforted by the white noise of chatter and cups, open your laptop in a cozy cafe; or invite some fellow remote workers to a quiet conference room for some body-doubling inspired productivity, just to stave off those pesky feelings of loneliness. Remote work isn’t about confinement — it’s about choice

Participants at reLead Summit, hosted by RemotelyOne at CitizenM in Washington D.C.

Myth #3: Remote work means “work from anywhere”

Yes, the tasks of a role may theoretically be done anywhere a worker has access to a computer and the internet, but from the employer's side, allowing workplace flexibility is MUCH more complex. Considerations like local employment laws, corporate taxation, information security, and industry regulations often mean that allowing employees to work outside of a certain region can cost a company thousands (or even millions) of dollars, and can be a dangerous legal risk. The argument that all remote workers should be able to work from anywhere is absolutely unrealistic. 

Do any of those sound familiar? Unfortunately, these arguments are all too common in executive meetings around the world right now, as executives and boards are making the decision about whether or not to continue allowing employees to work from home. Myths like this are influencing perceptions about the viability of long-term workplace flexibility and clouding the judgment of key decision makers. 

What a horrifying thought — a permanent workplace verdict that might be based on inaccurate myths! But since when have companies been making significant business decisions based on biased opinions, and media-driven myths? We all know that top-level executives typically require extensive research and evidence to inform a choice before making it about products, real estate, or department restructure — the same should be true about remote work too. More than ever before, it’s critical to cut through subjective information with the knife of science, by using credible data to inform a verdict.

So, instead of each other’s opinions, what data should company leaders be looking at to determine whether or not remote work is working for them? As virtual organizational development analysts, we at Distribute Consulting recommend starting with these three categories: 

  1. Productivity — Let’s be honest, the whole controversy about “remote versus return” all boils down to performance — are employees as productive in the office as they are out of it, and vice versa? Employee surveys are a good place to start to collect the data that will answer this question, but qualitative responses are easily subjective. So, to supplement workforce feedback with more quantitative results, compare and contrast data from your project management system and your desk booking software (or information security system, or whatever tool you have in your digital infrastructure that tracks user location). As you dig into these reports, make sure to evaluate by location (“Are all flexible workers producing more output in one location than another?”) and by individual (“Is this person producing more output in one location than another?”). Also remember that “productivity” is more than just “output,” so make sure that the key performance indicators that you’re measuring are diversified enough to measure different types of success, such as research, networking, troubleshooting, customer service, meetings, etc. The good news is that, according to Global Workplace Analytics, teleworkers are 35-40% more productive than their office counterparts, have an output increase of over 4%, and produce results with 40% fewer quality defects. So, the evidence in this category should be very encouraging. 

  2. Employee Engagement — In the news, we hear of the infamous stories about companies who call their workers back into the office… and no one shows up. It’s proof that the 86% of professionals who want more flexibility are willing to vote with their feet in order to get it. And chances are, they aren’t just using the commute to communicate their preference. If you haven’t already, start looking for other channels through which your staff may be proving how much they value workplace flexibility by calculating the impacts that working from home is having on your human capital — Are remote-friendly application rates attracting a higher volume or stronger diversity of candidates? Have staff members been upskilling to learn new digital tools and processes? Are you able to reduce turnover and attrition by offering higher flexibility? Your application management and HR management tools should hold the answers. If you have been offering maximum flexibility thus far, research would predict that your absenteeism and attrition rates should both have decreased, and your talent attraction and retention rates should be higher than ever.  

  3. Profitability — Yes, flexibility is a great benefit for employees. But what are the rewards for the organization? Any company-wide change should be a strategic decision to strengthen the bottom line of the business, so if key financial metrics like real estate costs, workforce productivity, human capital, or digital infrastructure aren’t being optimized, then it simply doesn’t make fiscal sense for the company to invest in the change. For a temperature check on the financial impact of remote working in your company, start by reviewing the quarterly financial reports from each department — compare what the averages of quarters 3 and 4 looked like in 2021 in comparison to the same time period in 2018 and 2019. For a deeper investigation (or a customization of which financial metrics are the biggest savings opportunities for your organization), hire a remote work consultant with a specialty in virtual organizational development. Global Workplace Analytics reports that organizations save an average of $11,000 per year, per part-time telecommuter, which translates into about 21% higher profitability per employee, which is an enticing benchmark to consider as you review your books. Those are shocking numbers that can really make the difference between thriving or not surviving as a business… especially with an economic recession looming on the horizon.

It’s easy to see that remote work isn’t just a workplace model that helps people work better, it’s also an operational model that helps your business work better. If these three key metrics are continually rising in your organization, you know that workplace flexibility is a valuable strategy that is strengthening your business. However, what do you do when these metrics are declining? Does that dip mean that it's time to pull the plug on remote work and call workers back into the office? Slow down, cowboy. There are several resolution strategies that you can implement to help get your success metrics back on track, such as: 

  • Gather your team for an on-site sprint — There’s no denying that extra energy and focus can come when your team collaborates together in person. However, that doesn’t necessarily justify a full return-to-office recall. Instead of making an all-or-nothing decision, find a compromise by encouraging remote workers to gather together just a few times a quarter (or even a few times a year) to collaborate on really important projects, like a new product launch or annual roadmapping. Convening at a place like CitizensM that prioritizes distributed teams means that you’ll have all of the materials and resources necessary to collaborate efficiently, plus build some extra trust and camaraderie without a daily commute to your old cubicles and conference rooms. 

  • Consider adopting a hub and spoke real estate model — If the on-site sprint system is a hit with your team, consider extending it into an entire workplace model by adopting a “hub and spoke” real estate plan. This design replaces large colocated offices in expensive urban areas with satellite offices or coworking spaces in regions with a high density of employees. This way, you get the benefits of both having your employees relatively close together for frequent gatherings, without having to foot the bill for a permanent office space. 

  • Host an onboarding or upskilling retreat — Often, the biggest problem with remote work success isn’t understanding if off-site success is possible, it’s understanding how off-site success is possible. Companies invest incredible amounts of time and energy into onboarding their employees about what performance expectations are like in the office… but what about the home office? Have you upskilled your staff on critical topics like self-management, home office safety and ergonomics, virtual professionalism, and digital communication standards? If not, consider gathering your team Hire an certified trainer that specializes in remote work (like ReLead attendee, Workplaceless

Adopting remote work in your organization doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing biased decision, so your perceptions about it shouldn’t be polarized or subjective either. Lean into this conversion as you would any other change management process in your organization — with thorough data-based analysis, investments in training and consulting, and the design of supportive benchmarks to guide your team through the transition.