In the continuing wake of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis, almost all businesses that are able to transition their normal business operations to a work-from-home model have done so. While the sudden transition is certainly proving difficult for many, it’s also exposing key advantages of remote work and how this different style of work can deliver significant benefits for both companies and employees.
Of course, while the all-team, full-time remote work format has been an involuntary, unexpected change for most companies, there are those who have been operating under this model for years and, consequently, have seen little to no disruption to their daily operations as a result of the coronavirus.
So, what is this distributed workforce model really like, and why do many consider it the future of work?
The Benefits of the Distributed Workforce Model
First, the distributed workforce model is about more than just working remotely—it comprises a workforce that is not limited by any geographic boundaries or restrictions. Instead, it enables companies to hire, train, and support an entirely remote, full-time team across the country—or even multiple countries.
For businesses, this makes it easy to attract and retain highly talented employees. Meanwhile, for prospective employees, it offers a unique opportunity for a high-quality position that suits their personal lifestyle needs.
This distributed workforce model is particularly well-suited for the customer support and tech support industries. These industries typically attract a wide range of people who, for one reason or another, are struggling to find their perfect fit in the traditional, brick-and-mortar workforce. Many, for example, may be veterans, disabled, or disabled veterans. They may be people who need extra flexibility to accommodate their responsibilities for childcare or caregiving for elders. They may live in a rural area that has limited job opportunities but are either unable or unwilling to move. Or, they may simply be looking for a way to eliminate a long work commute to save money on gas and car repairs, win back extra time in their day, and reduce their carbon footprint.
Achieving a satisfactory work-life balance is a universal struggle, and as more remote-work opportunities become available, people are discovering that the traditional brick-and-mortar work model just doesn’t meet the needs of their dynamic lifestyles—but a distributed workforce model that promotes flexibility can. Business that help employees manage their work-life balance can expect an impact to the bottom line—lower turnover and a more productive workforce over time.
In addition to helping employees better manage their work-life balance, a distributed model makes businesses more resilient to potentially disruptive events and better enables them to continue normal business operations in the face of a crisis. This is most blatantly evident with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has forced almost all non-essential businesses to abruptly turn to full-time remote work. Unfortunately, not all businesses were prepared for this transition, lacking the communication tools, policies, equipment, systems, and security to continue functioning as normal; however, businesses that already operated with a remote work model were able to continue operations largely uninterrupted.
And it doesn’t take a global pandemic to prove the worth of having a distributed workforce, as even smaller, more localized events also have the ability to disrupt the traditional brick-and-mortar workflow. Consider a natural disaster, like a hurricane: In a brick-and-mortar model, this could render an entire business completely incapacitated. But with a distributed workforce model, businesses are protecting themselves and their team from having the entire site becoming compromised in such an event. Rather, the business can focus on making sure the affected team is safe, while the larger workforce continues regular operations.
Why the Distributed Workforce Is the Future of Work
As many businesses are now experiencing, successfully operating a full-time, remote, distributed workforce is not an easy feat. At the same time, the coronavirus crisis has proven that, while it is can be a challenging transition, finding productivity with this work model is very possible. In fact, as our communal time in quarantine continues and we adapt to a new lifestyle of even greater digital dependency, many are speculating that the distributed workforce will become the new norm in the wake of the virus.
For years, those who have resisted the distributed, remote work model have cited fears of decreased productivity as a reason to remain brick-and-mortar, but recent events and numerous studies have proven that remote work actually increases business productivity.
And it’s not just businesses that are increasingly favoring the distributed workforce; employees, too, are seeing the value in remote work as an opportunity to eliminate burdensome commutes and spend more time with family.
While the distributed workforce model is clearly not possible for all professions (e.g., nurses, teachers, restaurant workers, etc.), it is showing itself as an attractive alternative for many. But transitioning to this model successfully requires careful attention to new policies for equipment, security, communication, HR, etc.
For example, the number one issue for remote workers across all organizations is getting access to systems, applications, and knowledge-sharing portals while at home. This must be addressed by enabling remote password resets, automated account management workflows, authorized access controls, identity management, and IT support staff that are easily accessible via chat, email, video, remote access, or phone. Businesses also need to provide access to virtual collaboration tools (e.g., video-conferencing tools, such as Zoom, messaging tools, such as Slack, and document sharing portals, like Confluence and Google Docs) that make working in teams seamless, regardless of location.
Finally, for HR, the key is to educate staff on how to support a distributed workforce. Chiefly, it’s important to clearly communicate telecommuting policies. With employees working from home, HR must assert that they needn’t bring their work home, i.e., policies should outline expectations on core working hours and environment to ensure that employees aren’t overworking themselves. Internal communication pages, such as blogs and daily newsletters, help distributed teams feel supported and enable them to perform at their best.
The recent transition to distributed, remote work has, for most business, been an abrupt one, but as the coronavirus crisis subsides and quarantines lift, we may likely find ourselves living a changed world where the distributed workforce model is very much the new normal.