How to improve conditions for working well from anywhere

by | Aug 11, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

Organizations that let their employees decide where and when to do their jobs – whether in a different geography or at their preferred time of day (or night) — can contribute to a triple win, according to new research as reported in the Harvard Business Review.

Employees can win when they enjoy living and working in their chosen location. They may be moving due to the changing needs of their family or wanting to be in a desirable community with lower living costs, higher quality of life, or other attractive features. (These attributes fit Charleston, SC, which is now home to a large and vibrant community of remote workers, part of the larger Charleston Women in Tech. By the way, I now live about six blocks north of where this picture was taken.)

Employers can win because they can increase productivity from these remote workers, reduce turnover, and lower organizational costs.

The environment can win because of reduced commuting.

For more about this study by Prithwiraj Choudhury, an associate professor in the Technology and Operations Management Unit at Harvard Business School, and his fellow researchers, read their paper (Live and) Work from Anywhere: Geographic Flexibility and Productivity Effects at the United States Patent Office (pdf).

Note that “work from anywhere” policies are more liberal than traditional “work-from-home” arrangements. With the latter, employees generally live near the office and work at home with a flexible work schedule and no daily commute.

Remote work of any type is still the exception not the norm. Even with all the digital technology that makes workers accessible and efficient regardless of where they are based, most employers have hesitated to embrace remote work.

Granted, remote work is not always suitable. Think about retail employees, or those jobs that require constant coordination with co-workers. Even jobs that depend on frequent collaboration may not be ideal for full-time remote work.

However, if there’s a will, there’s often a way – especially in a tight labor market when high-performing individuals request more flexible working conditions.

How can you – as either an employer or an employee wanting to make a case for working outside the office – improve conditions to work well from anywhere?

Address the will and skill and help each other get over the hill.

The will – the motivation. When employees have a clear sense of the organization’s purpose and it lines up with their personal purpose and interests, employees are more likely to feel engaged to apply themselves. (See Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why.)

Employees also feel more motivated when they feel like their work matters. For instance, David Yaden working with BetterUp, has found that people perform better not only when they believe their work matters, but also when they receive validation that they matter from their manager, organization, and co-workers.

The skill – the ability to do the work. Make sure an individual’s strengths are a good fit for the job. Researcher Claudia Harzer’s work shows that individuals perform better and are more satisfied with their work when they’re applying their individual strengths on the job. Furthermore, Harzer has discovered that as people practice and learn how to better use their signature strengths at work, they’re able to increase the sense that their work is more of a “calling”—which also leads to more positive experiences.

Getting over the hill – dealing with the obstacles. It’s often not enough to help employees use their will and skills; employers also need to either eliminate or reduce the barriers, that is the hills, that get in employees’ way. Sometimes these hills are mole hills; other times they’re mountains. However, ignoring hills of all sizes signals to employees that they and their work don’t matter, which damages employee motivation.

By contrast, when managers work to provide psychological safety to remote workers on conference calls and video calls, those remote workers generally notice. They feel safe to speak up. And they appreciate being seen and heard and connected with everyone else.

Also when managers, or others in the organization, help employees feel capable and confident about their ability to achieve some balance around work and their personal life, people’s satisfaction with their job and overall life increases.

Researcher Xi Wen Chan found in a 2015 study that having “self-efficacy” — that is, the belief in yourself and the ability to do the job well – was actually more important than the actual policies the employer offered.

To say it another way, the quality of the policies wasn’t as important as the fact that an employer had policies and employees knew about them, felt their employer supported them as individuals, and worked with their mangers to apply the policies as is, or with adaptation, to their situation. In these situations, employees felt more in control and competent about achieving work/life balance arrangements and therefore more satisfied with both their job and personal life.

When employers focus on the “will, skill and hill,” all employees – especially remote workers – can benefit.


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