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Remote Work Has Arrived: The History, Best Practices, Tips, Dos, and Don’ts

12 min read
Oct 20, 2020

Over the last year, remote work has taken the world by storm. Before the pandemic, only 3.6% of the U.S. workforce was working remotely half of the time or more. However, times have clearly changed. 

Those numbers have surged upwards in a way no one could have predicted a year ago. Now, it’s estimated that 42% of the labor market is working remotely full-time. With 33% of workers out of work and 26% working at the location of their employer, the U.S. has essentially become an economy based on remote work.

With the dramatic increase in people working remotely happening over just the last six months, we’ve entered a dynamic, quickly-evolving work environment. Some things we thought about remote work at the beginning of the year have proven true. Other things, not so much. This six-month remote work trial has also revealed some data that no one could have predicted.

The switch to remote work was necessary to keep national economies and employees’ livelihoods from floundering. Without making that change earlier in the year, many would be significantly worse off than they are now.

“Without this historic switch to working from home, the lockdown could never have lasted. The economy would have collapsed, forcing us to return to work, reigniting infection rates. Working from home is not only economically essential, but it's also a critical weapon in our fight against COVID-19 – and future pandemics.”

However, now that we are out of the initial phases of working remotely, it’s time for the process to be fine-tuned. Almost all of the current remote workers say they want some form of remote work to continue after the pandemic. Combine that fact with increased productivity and savings by both employer and employees, and it’s clear that remote work won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

With that in mind, here are the essential facts and best practices for working remotely.

What is remote work?

Remote work, formerly known as telecommuting, describes being able to do your professional work outside of a traditional office environment. That could mean working from home, a coffee shop, or a tropical island. It operates off of the belief that work can be done from anywhere in the world and that your work is not tied to a specific location.

no commuters

Remote work is meant to place more emphasis on work-life balance by avoiding the time and expense of commuting to work. Remote work can be full-time, part-time, or any combination of those. In most cases, freelancers are also considered remote workers because they are individually making the decision about where they will work.

These days, remote work is also understood to mean that technology also plays a key role in being able to successfully work remotely. For many, that means that a computer and an internet connection are key. In the digital age, we can communicate with almost anyone anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat. Remote work takes advantage of that paradigm.

What’s not remote work?

It’s also important to note what’s not remote work. While the terms are often confused, working remotely is not the same thing as working from home or having flexible hours.

Working from home, as the name suggests, means simply that: working at home. While you can be remotely working from home, not all remote work is done that way because remote work is not tied to a location. Remote work can be from anywhere.

Flexible, or flex, hours means that your schedule can be adjusted depending on a variety of factors. For example, you can have a flex schedule that requires employees to be available from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., and then they can determine when they want to work the rest of their hours. You can also have a flexible schedule that allows employees to work whenever they want as long as they get in eight hours a day. While many remote work jobs offer a flexible schedule, it’s certainly not universal.

The history of working remotely

With the sudden increase in remote work, it may seem like it’s a term that has only recently been with us. However, while the term’s usage has seen a significant uptick in recent months, the concept of working remotely has been with us for some time. In fact, the concept has been with us since at least the 16th century. Back then, it was cobblers, blacksmiths, carpenters, etc. who were working remotely. Of course, for them, that meant working from home.

It was only during the Industrial Revolution that we started to see large numbers of people working away from home because large factories required workers to be on-site. Fast forward to the beginning of the 20th Century and, fueled by modern inventions like telephones, typewriters, and publicly available electricity, we begin to see the rise of modern offices.

Following the invention of the office cubicle in 1968 by Robert Probst, the 1970s-90s is when we start to see remote work, or telecommuting as it was called then, start to look like something we can recognize now. Commutes to and from work started to become a major part of people’s lives. That, combined with developments in technology like personal computers, provided the momentum for people and businesses to begin exploring remote work options.

Once the internet was born in 1983, and then wifi in 1991, everything needed for remote work to thrive was in place. The next 29 years saw many advancements, and increasing popularity, for remote work by businesses, employees, and the government. However, it wasn’t until 2020 and the pandemic that saw remote work finally explode. In short, while remote work had difficulty finding wide-scale adoption for many years, it was finally able to do so when it was needed like no other time in our history.

Remote work best practices

desk and laptop

Now, with remote work being used by many businesses and employees, it’s evolving at a frenetic pace. It’s being developed and refined to meet the needs of millions of workers, so we’re learning more about what works and what doesn’t every day. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the ways remote work needs to operate in order to be successful for employees and businesses alike.

Before remote work is implemented

Do make sure that remote work is suitable for your business and its employees. Ask yourself these questions. Do you have the right technology and tools in place to make remote work efficient? Which roles are best for remote work? Do your employees have the desire and motivation to succeed at remote work?

Don’t forget to develop a remote work policy. If your business is going to switch to remote work, you’ll need to have a strong policy describing various factors of how your company will work remotely. Things like the hours employees need to be available, which jobs are eligible for remote work, how you’ll measure productivity, and data security all need to be addressed.

Do trust your employees. Trust is perhaps the most important consideration when it comes to remote work. Leaders need to show their employees that they are trusted to do their work no matter where they are located. To that end, avoid tracking software or other technology to check up on your workers. If you’re unable to trust your employees without using these tools, consider whether or not working remotely is viable for your business.

Don’t offer the same perks and benefits as you did before working remotely. You’ll need to revise the perks and benefits package offered to employees. There are a few reasons for this. One is that a cool open office space, abundant snacks, and catered lunches no longer matter when workers aren’t there to use them. Another reason is that the money your business is saving with electricity, rent, office equipment, etc. needs to find its way to whoever is paying for those things now. If it’s your employees, they’re very aware of that fact. However, remember, not all perks and benefits need to be about money. Flexibility and being concerned about your employees will go a long way, too.

Do adjust how you onboard employees. Onboarding is even more difficult with remote workers. Many of the relationships we develop with our colleagues are developed by physically working with them. For newly hired remote workers, this won’t be possible. Introduce new hires to the entire company, and assign them a mentor who can help them navigate their initial onboarding. You can also set up a group of new hires and encourage them to have virtual coffee breaks or happy hours. Doing this will help them stay connected to each other and, in turn, your company.

Soon after remote work is implemented

Do make sure employees know they are still accountable for their work. Just as your business needs to trust your employees, your employees need to know that they are just as accountable for their work as they would be in the office. Although where they’re working may have changed, there shouldn’t be a noticeable downward trend in accountability or productivity.

Don’t forget that communication is more important than ever now. While expectations about availability should be set in the remote work policy, ensure that they’re emphasized up and down the line. Make sure that different departments are sharing their work with the entire company and that good work is acknowledged personally. 

teamwork

Do build in breaks for socializing. Watercooler or coffee talks are still a necessity. Now, they just need to be done virtually. Schedule a time for them so employees can still bond. Additionally, having virtual game nights or workout sessions can also give employees a chance to talk in a way that would be similar to how they would socialize in the office. Of course, all of those things should be voluntary.

Don’t forget about the physical space employees are now working in. Just because they’re not in the office doesn’t mean the physical environment they are working in is any less important. Make sure they have the things they need to be productive. That could mean providing office furniture and stressing the importance of ergonomics (i.e., don’t work from the couch or bed).

Do make sure you have the right tools in place and that employees know how to use them. You’ll need to have the right tools for communication and project management. Whether your company uses Zoom, Google Meet, Teams, Jira, Asana, or any of the other widely-available options, make sure everyone knows how to use them efficiently. Those tools are now your employee’s lifeline to the company.

After remote work catches on

Do encourage employees to take advantage of working remotely. This will help with the loneliness and burnout that is more and more often being attributed to working remotely. Encourage your workers to travel, take walks, listen to their favorite music, take breaks, disengage at the end of the workday, or otherwise give themselves a mental break and prioritize their work-life balance.

Don’t forget that employee training is even more critical now. Training has always been important, but now, with employees not having access to other employees face to face, it needs to be highly prioritized. Assign a mentor to new employees, and make training materials readily available. Remote workers want access to professional development just as much as they did in the office. Don’t make them miss out just because they are no longer there.

Do consider implementing flexible hours and/or asynchronous communication. Whether forced into remote work or voluntarily doing it, you’ll make your remote workers’ lives much easier if they have some control over when they work. Having flexible hours and asynchronous communication protects your workers from burnout and gives parents with kids at home better ways to be as productive as they can be. This will require your company to document conversations and meetings, but it’ll be worth it.

Don’t allow differences for remote and in-office workers. Just as much as workers that are in the office, remote workers should be included in all meetings and events. If they can’t be present, whether virtually or physically, record all meetings and important conversations. Hopefully it goes without saying, but remote workers should have the same opportunities for promotions and advancement within the company as those that are in the office.

Remote workers and empathy

Do give empathy the highest priority. Empathy was a buzzword before 2020. However, it was often used to talk about how you should treat customers and user experience. Now, empathy is more commonly being applied to employee experience and engagement. Lead with empathy, and make sure it is the cornerstone of your company culture and leadership. Now more than ever, it matters.

Don’t neglect mental health and well-being. Loneliness is one of the most cited negative aspects of working remotely because people are, well, working alone. Burnout is another because, when work is also your home, it can be difficult to unplug at the end of the day. Find ways to take care of your employees’ mental well-being. That could be by giving them a subscription to a mental health app, a benefit in their healthcare package, or something similar. 

Do alter your leadership and management styles. Working remotely requires a different leadership style. Among other things, you need to implement personal check-ins, say “thank you” often, and provide feedback. It’s also more important to verbalize expectations and acknowledge achievements. On top of that, ensure that your company culture is strong. That will help workers stay connected even though there is physical distance separating everyone. Something that can help with that is to make sure leaders, including CEOs, are more visible than before. There’s no better way to feel the company culture than by seeing it straight from the top.

Like it or not, remote work is here to stay. Embrace these best practices, and you’ll give your company and employees the best chance to be efficient and productive. By doing so, you’ll be helping them further their professional development, and you’ll be giving your business its best chance for success.