THE VIRTUES OF WORKING REMOTELY
“Don’t confuse having a career with having a life.”
– Hillary Clinton
Note: I published this article in February 2020, just before the pandemic. Most observations remain the same. The big difference is that now, I probably don’t need to provide a list of “learn more” links, as now everyone and anyone likely knows more than they would like about working remotely. But perhaps, it’s still good to be reminded of its virtues.
My nebulous career dream of working in “tech” has always clashed with my choice of residence.
The three cities I’ve lived in since I graduated college—Northampton, MA, Burlington, VT, and Traverse City, MI—aren’t exactly known for being industry hubs. I should also probably clarify that for a few years after I moved to Michigan, I actually lived in the Up North villages of Lake Leelanau and Suttons Bay.
Exactly. I had moved to a place where a good idea of a date was to take someone ice fishing. (Yeah, that happened to me.)
While I mourned the loss of better in-town career opportunities, at the same time, I also cherished living in one of the most singularly beautiful areas of the United States.
In my journey back to Leelanau, I am inspired by my father. Years ago, he was diagnosed with CLL, a very manageable form of leukemia that you can successfully live with. One my parents’ responses to this was to downsize their life in Vermont, and buy an apartment in Italy.
My Dad now works remotely as an architect for several months each year from the Marche region of Italy. It’s fabulous. (Incidentally, when my parents return to Vermont from their sleepy little town, they are shocked at how expensive everything is.)
Seriously, life is just too short. We cherish our experiences far more than the things that we accumulate. I knew when moved to Traverse City over a decade ago that I was probably never going to make a ton of money in digital marketing, but I didn’t move here for that. I moved here for a better quality of life. (Although, the lower cost of living doesn’t hurt either.)
My father also encourages his employees to embrace the remote-work ethos. For example, his office manager has worked remotely from Florida for the past 5+ years. Other employees have taken extended, working trips to France and Italy. The digital agency I currently work for, FINE, has a similarly enlightened view. Not only have I been privileged to work remotely from Traverse City for the past decade, but FINE also has other productive employees scattered across the US, Austria, and even Japan.
WHY HIRE REMOTE WORKERS?
1. Improved productivity. For real.
Don’t let the earlier photo of my dad nursing a glass of wine fool you. In 2018, a groundbreaking Stanford University study spearheaded by Professor Nicholas Bloom uncovered some incredible, tangible data points about the benefits of WFH (working from home). Thousands of employees at a Shanghai-based travel company were divided into two groups: half would work remotely, and half would remain in their office. It was the first-ever randomized experiment on WFH.
Early results found that the employees tasked to work remotely were 13% more productive than their office counterparts.
That’s almost one additional day a week.
Why the big increase in productivity? First off, they found that people working from home were literally able to put in more time than in-office workers who arrived late, took long lunch breaks, and/or lingered around the water cooler. Remote workers also took fewer breaks, time off, and sick days.
They also noted that remotees (Is that a word? It should be.) were able to concentrate far better away from the constant distraction of the office. This totally makes sense, especially when you consider how 70% of businesses have open floor plans, which are notoriously poor environments for humans.
Because the results were so profitable, the company rolled out WFH capabilities across their entire business after the study was over.
2. Far less employee turnover
Nicholas Bloom’s Stanford study also found that quit rates for remote employees dropped by 50%.
50%?! That’s an amazing improvement, especially when you consider that the average cost-per-hire for companies is $4,129, and that it also takes about 42 days to fill a new position. WFH policies pose considerable cost and time savings in terms of employee retention.
3. Reduced cost of office space
Amusingly, the initial impetus behind the company’s participation in the Stanford study was to save on office space (apparently Shanghai is pricey). They had actually expected productivity to go down, but wanted to see if the reduced real estate spend was worth it.
While the cost-per-square-foot of office space varies dramatically across the US, there’s no question that this is a major source of overhead for most companies. It’s a likely reason why so many businesses have switched the open-office model, allowing them to squeeze more bodies into less space.
The study attributed a noteworthy two-thirds of overall cost improvement to the reduction in office space. The unexpected bonus was saving even more because of improved performance and reduced turnover.
“We don’t need to be like this anymore… the way that we organize the office is very backward looking.”
– Nicholas Bloom
4. Happier & Healthier Employees
Another recent study of 10,000 workers across 14 countries found that 85% of employees were dissatisfied with their current office environment, and 95% desired the ability to work remotely.
I find those statistics to be heartbreaking. Something is dramatically wrong here.
It’s not just the fact that we spend way too much time trapped in our daily commutes. (I’ll never forget one friend’s horror stories about her soul-crushing, two-hour commute in LA.)
It’s that once we get there, the environment we find ourselves in isn’t always conducive to our overall well being. Sure, maybe we won’t always be thrilled to be “at work”, but there’s a big difference between that and being actively dissatisfied with and negatively affected by your physical space.
What is it about the office that can get us so down? Anecdotally, I can think of so many things. Hovering art directors. A peanut-butter spoon in the sink. The fight-or-flight adrenaline triggered by having your back to an open office. A coworker you declined to date. Maybe it’s the microbiome? Even things like music.
I’d also like to argue that for introverts like me, offices can just be plain rough because you have to be around other people (lol). But seriously, the introvert hangover is real.
5. Access to Incredible Talent
Quality talent can make or break your business. In fact, one of Amazon’s primary reasons for their (now defunct) plans to open a new office in Queens was because of the region’s incredibly diverse talent pool.
So imagine if you suddenly had access to highly productive and motivated employees across the entire United States—or even the world—without having to worry about relocation? Well, you don’t need to imagine it, because this potential already exists.
In my opinion, the best employee for the job shouldn’t be the one who also happens to be local. It should just be the best employee for the job, period.
6. Bonus – Improved Carbon Footprint
In 2014, Carbon Trust came out with a fascinating UK study all about how WFH could reduce carbon emissions. While the study is a few years old at this point, it still presents some of the most compelling data I could find about the carbon-footprint benefits of remote work. While noting that heating a single office is more efficient than heating numerous remote outposts, it still ultimately found that homeworking has the potential to cut £3 billion (~$6.5 billion) a year for UK employers and employees and reduce carbon emissions by over 3 million tonnes (tons) a year. This article from GreenBiz provides a superb summary of the findings.
ADDITIONAL WFH CONSIDERATIONS
1. It’s not for everyone
As someone who has worked almost a decade for a company where 90% of the employees are three time zones away from me, I can attest that it can get lonely. It’s probably a good thing that I’m an introvert, as well as someone who is proactive and self-motivated. WFH also means I don’t leave the house as often as might be healthy, and then there’s that work-life separation to consider. And yeah, sometimes I’ll look up from my computer, note that it’s 12pm, and I’m still pathetically in my pajamas.
If you’re craving some office culture, one great option to consider is using a coworking space a few days a week. Unfortunately, the open-fishbowl design of most of these spaces isn’t for crusty old introverted me, but much has been written about how many people thrive in coworking spaces—one of the major reasons being that people who use such spaces tend to have far more job control. (IMHO that has less to do with the coworking space itself than with being privileged to work remotely, but I digress.)
2. The key is offering people a choice
Not all employees in the Stanford study liked working from home, much less saw their productivity improve. Half of the treatment group returned to the office after the study was over, while 2/3 of the control group opted to likewise continue there.
The remainder embraced WFH.
The key is offering people a choice. When employees were given autonomy to choose their work environment, performance across the entire company went up an incredible 22%, outperforming the initial results of the study.
3. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing
A great balance for helping local employees boost productivity can be giving them the option to WFH just a few days a week. In the Stanford study, treatment group employees worked from home four days a week, with the fifth day in the office.
Here are just a few reasons why someone may opt to WFH 1 or more days a week:
- Needing to be 100% heads-down on a project
- Long commute / traffic snarls today
- The weather is atrocious
- The cable guy gave a window between 8am-12pm, which means he’ll show up at 2pm
- Because it’s awesome to just have the option, period.
4. Technology is AMAZING
Finally, we have this thing called the Internet that has put all kinds of incredible tools at our disposal. While there’s always email, I’m a huge fan of instant messaging with Slack. Even when I’m in the office, I’ll often slack people instead of interrupting them at their desks. Zoom is another favorite for conference calls, video calls, screensharing, and giving presentations to clients. Google Docs makes it dead simple to collaborate in real time. There’s even immersive, virtual collaboration with The Wild. For ultimate convenience, consider a unified collaborative tool like Slite that’s specifically designed to empower remote teams.
REMOTE WORK IS THE FUTURE (NOW)
There’s a saying here in Traverse City, “a view of the bay for half the pay”. When I moved here 12+ years ago, my starting offer at Oneupweb—a local digital marketing company that has thankfully since moved to new ownership—was very much in line with this philosophy.
As women are advised, I negotiated up, but the improvement was negligible. The biggest career hurdle of my life was quitting two years later, and then trying to find work locally while operating under a debilitating non-compete agreement. If I hadn’t met my future husband, I would have moved. It wasn’t just the non-compete—there were also few local opportunities at that time.
Eventually, it was remote work that saved me. However, I went through a scary period of uncertainty that I hope never to repeat.
Traverse City has made enormous progress when it comes to the tech industry. The area itself is blossoming with innovative developments (and an incredible culinary scene),while more and more young families are moving here for the close-knit community and quality of life.
Escaping to the country is becoming a Thing.
Still, I can think of more than a few acquaintances who have to switch to totally different careers for the privilege of living here. I also have another friend who lives 20 miles away in breathtakingly gorgeous Leelanau, but who still has to schlep to Traverse City every day just to sit at a desk. (Rolling my eyes as I type this.)
Bringing additional high-value jobs to the area—while not compromising the rural charm—is a tall order. In the meantime, I’d like to see more companies nationwide innovative by hiring remote workers. We’re getting there. A recent survey from Upwork estimates that by 2028, 73% of all departments will have remote workers, with 33% of full-time employees working remotely.
As a related example, the State of Vermont has a new grant program that will pay remote workers $10,000 to move to the state, helping to cover the cost of moving expenses and more. Not available to current residents, the law focuses on bringing new people to the area that work for companies based outside the state.
Remote work is the future. In the meantime, it’s exciting to see glimpses of this future happening now—such as Google job search finally making it easier to find WFH options. The ultimate career dream is having a job you like, living in a place you like too. I encourage you to follow it.
Global Workplace Analytics : Advantages of Agile Work Strategies For Companies
The New Yorker: The Open Office Trap
Entrepreneur: Why it’s Time to Ditch Open-Office Floor Plans
NY Times: Forget the Suburbs, it’s Country or Bust
Business Insider: Inside Traverse City, Home to Wealthy Millennials