Why Remote Work Initiatives Fail
Working remotely is all the rage but for almost every company that’s gone or is planning on going remote, there’s one that either doesn’t believe remote work is for them or has already tried going remote and failed. In 2013, Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer banned working from home, Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings sees remote work as “a pure negative,” and Google is about to invest $7 billion in more office space.
However, at the same time, companies like Facebook, Twitter, and dozens of other household names are giving thousands of employees the opportunity to work from home permanently. This paradox poses an important question for any business looking to make remote or hybrid working a permanent operational fixture: Why do remote work initiatives thrive in some companies and fail in others?
Here are a few reasons why WFH initiatives fail.
Lack of Collaboration
The number one reason why WFH doesn’t work for some companies is the hit that collaboration tends to take when teams go remote.
Take Yahoo as an example. Speaking at the Great Place to Work Conference in 2013, Mayer admitted that while overall, employee productivity improved as a result of employees being allowed to work from home, collaboration decreased. At the time, Mayer reported that “People are [...] more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” To illustrate this point, Mayer brought attendants’ attention to the Yahoo Weather app for iOS, which was reportedly borne out of a spontaneous encounter between two software engineers that worked in the same office.
Results from a survey on the effects of WFH on collaboration seem to confirm that, when poorly planned, remote work can stall creativity. More than two in three remote employees said that their ideas were lost because they didn’t make it into notes, and one in three WFH workers said there were far fewer casual, spontaneous moments for brainstorming. Almost half of all managers in the survey said that the office environment promotes creativity.
However, lack of collaboration in remote work is easily avoidable. There are plenty of WFH tools that can replicate the feeling of working in a physical office and spark collaboration. For example, RemoteHQ not only allows teams to launch virtual whiteboards that make it easy to bounce off ideas but also lets employees import and collaborate in Google Docs, Trello, and Figma (among other apps), talk via video chat without toggling any tabs, and co-control web apps with a shared browser.
Difficulty Managing and Mentoring Employees
When teams go remote, managing and mentoring employees becomes a much more challenging task, especially for business leaders used to overseeing team members in an office.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, the CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella said, “what I miss [since going remote] is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the person that is next to you, you’re able to connect with them for the two minutes before and after.” Spotting symptoms of employee burnout and mental health issues can also be much more difficult when you only see your workers once or twice a week through the screen.
Onboarding and training new employees remotely can be an issue for many businesses, as well. When team members are dispersed all over the world, developing relationships and creating shared understandings is much harder. To avoid misunderstandings and inconsistent work output, it’s essential to provide clear training and proper explanations of team processes and methods. Employees should have easy access to training material and be encouraged to ask questions via regular check-ins.
Hiring Workers That Are Unsuitable for Remote Work
While almost 30% of employees say they would quit their jobs if they weren’t allowed to work remotely, not everyone sees WFH as a perk. In fact, some employees would much rather work in a physical workplace than from home.
Interestingly, employees who are new to WFH may be most resistant to going remote. A recent YouGov poll found that most workers who have been working remotely even before the pandemic forced most businesses to shut down their physical locations would rather continue working from home full-time or most of the time. In contrast, for people who started working from home due to the pandemic, only a quarter would like to stay remote full-time. These results imply that employees who have experience working remotely have their working processes nailed down, whereas those who are new to WFH are still struggling.
Previous experience of working remotely is definitely a plus. However, the CEO of the product roadmap software Aha! Brian de Haff says that whether someone will be a good fit for a remote role depends more on whether they’re super-responsive and a super-clear communicator. According to de Haff, remote employees need to be present, quick, direct, and spirited.
To see if the candidates you’re interviewing possess these qualities, you may want to use behavioral interviewing. Behavioral interviewing relies on discovering how a prospective employee behaved in specific employment-related situations in the past. Questions you can ask include, “tell me about how you keep your manager informed about the projects you’re working on?” and “what do you do when you have several competing priorities?”
Preserving On-Site Operations
Post-pandemic, some businesses plan to keep their physical offices open while also allowing employees to work from home. Although having a hybrid team may seem like the best of both worlds, this approach rarely works.
If anything, a hybrid remote approach can lead to an imbalance of accessibility and opportunity between remote and on-site employees. In a Wired article, the co-founder and CEO of GitLab Sid Sijbrandij said that “hybrid creates two fundamentally different employee experiences to manage.” According to Sijbrandij, most leaders in hybrid-remote firms will continue working from the office, effectively turning "remote-first" to "remote-allowed." Remote employees may not be penalized for working outside the office, but neither will they be included in the fabric of the company.
If your company is going to go remote, no one, not even C-level executives, should be allowed to keep working full-time on-site. The Harvard Business School professor Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury notes that if the C-Suite and top managers are all in a physical office, workers will also want to be there to get face time. On the other hand, if business leaders set an example by becoming WFH employees themselves — codifying information online and supporting both synchronous and asynchronous communication — remote work will effectively trickle down throughout the entire organization.
Not Having a Strong WFH Policy
The key reason managers oppose work from home initiatives is that they’re worried that employees will not work as hard when there’s no one to oversee them. Research shows that in most cases, the opposite is true. Remote employees are working longer, not shorter, hours than when they worked from the office.
However, that may not always be the case. In one study, 8 in 10 remote employees admitted to slacking off during the workday. And CEO of RLM Public Relations Richard Laermer had to cancel “work from home Friday” because he found that his employees viewed their “work-from-home day as paid time off”. Response times slowed, workers were unavailable for emergency in-person meetings, and the empty office demotivated people who had physically come into work that day.
Nine times out of ten, the above problems can be solved with detailed WFH policies that provide employees with structure and guidance to help them work from home. Setting rules and expectations for communication can improve trustworthiness, lead to faster completion of projects, and keep remote teams aligned with organizational goals.