working on a laptop under a willow tree
As businesses like IBM curtail remote working programs, we ask: what's holding remote working back? PHOTO: Garry Knight

IBM announced it was ending remote working for US employees in February. At the time some speculated it was just thinly veiled layoffs in disguise

Whether the measures helped Big Blue or not is a matter of speculation, but they fed into an ongoing debate about technology, remote working and productivity that has gained importance as more organizations implement digital transformation strategies.

Some See Benefits of Flexible Working

Vodafone published research last year showing how pervasive remote working is.

According to the survey, as of the end of 2015, 75 percent of companies worldwide had flexible working policies which allowed employees to vary their hours and work remotely. 

The survey of 8,000 business professionals across three continents also revealed the US led other countries in the implementation of flexible working strategies, with 82 percent of responding organizations indicating they had introduced flexible working.

Fifty-eight percent of US companies with flexible working policies reported increased profits, while 86 percent claimed increased employee productivity and 61 percent reported improved teamwork.

While Others View it as a Problem

While these numbers paint a rosy picture, some companies remain wary of remote working.

The Vodafone report spoke to some of those qualms. Forty-three percent of US companies surveyed feared teamwork and productivity would decline with remote working.

When IBM's ban on remote working leaked, IBM spokesman Clint Roswell told the Triangle Business Journal in Raleigh/Durham, NC, that the move was simply a response to the needs of digital marketing.

“This is an evolution of the way things are working. We find collaborative agile working much more conducive to ideas," he told the paper, the implication being that collaboration suffers when remote workers are involved.

The Technology Is There, So What's Missing?

A 2016 report from Deloitte Digital entitled "Digital Workplace and Culture: How digital technologies are changing the workforce and how enterprises can adapt and evolve," reads:

“As technology and networks become more robust, the computing power available in consumer hardware continues to increase, and employees become more comfortable with working on their devices, rather than meeting face to face or having to come into an office. Having a more digital savvy team has been a boon for employers.”

And this technology extends beyond full-time employees. 

Technology now enables workers to create and terminate team and collaborative activity as the organizational goals are established, met and replaced by other goals. In fact, other Deloitte research estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of all workers are part of these temporary teams.

“Companies are also able to create digitally integrated 'on-demand' teams, offering the ability to tap into extensive networks of innovators, technical experts and seasoned professionals from all over the world that can collaborate together. Researchers estimate that as many as 30 to 40 percent of all US workers today are contingent,” the research read.

So with technology available to support full time remote working and handle the intricacies of contingency workers, why do businesses still hesitate?

Technology Outpaces Processes

Businesses have created many digital strategies to enable remote work. But one area that's often overlooked in these strategies is the role of workflows in remote working.

According to Chicago-based SpringCM's Chief Strategy Officer Erik Severinghaus, the issue is with not with the technology, but with the human element.

“It’s so cliched now that I hate to say it, but the business value is about people, it’s about process and it’s about technology, and the technology has been, for a long time, substantially ahead of the processes,” he told CMSWire.

“The processes and the will of the people to sit down and understand it and execute on it is fundamentally one of the bottlenecks to the digital transformation that we spend so much time talking about. This in turn becomes the bottlenecks to working from home and this vision of the future that we have all been promised.”

Enter Automated Processes

Severinghaus believes a great deal of day-to-day collaboration could be replaced by automated processes.

“Much of the day to day collaboration is a function of inefficient process execution, because you have to have so many people talking and agreeing about what has to be done,” he said. "If you have the process worked out you can just go ahead and execute it as the technologies already exist to enable this to happen."

“If you have the internal workflows worked out and, and you have a platform that moves those processes through an execution framework then you don’t need people sitting in the office face-to-face to keep the work flowing."

We should note here that SpringCM, Severinghaus's employer, provides a platform for contract lifecycle management that automates manual tasks and complex processes.

Yet the argument about processes is an interesting one. Technology clearly isn't the culprit, nor the arguments about falling productivity enough reason to curtail remote working: keep in mind the 86 percent of US companies in Vodafone’s survey who implemented flexible working and seen an increase in employee productivity.

So could a more deliberate approach to processes improve remote working?

Of course other factors contribute to the success or failure of a remote working policy, including lack of clear guidelines, trust issues, juggling multiple time zones and more. But Severinghaus does make a compelling argument to include processes in that list:

“People talk about it, talk about it, talk about it but they don’t want to do the hard work of process optimization until their hand is forced for some reason or other,”  Severinghaus said.

“Many would rather sit around and talk about the tools, and spending money on all kinds of shiny objects, rather than sitting in a room and looking at what’s broken in processes and how to do it better.”