Millennial Think Tank: The Remote Workforce

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This week’s Millennial Think Tank focused on the remote workforce, or ‘telecommuting,’ as it’s commonly called. The past 15 years ushered in a transformation in work flexibility and remote working, made possible by the impact of technology and the internet.

Joining our panel this week were:

You can listen or watch the entire hangout below, or read on for a recap and key insights:

To begin the discussion we started with the following facts, gathered by Global Workplace Analytics, a San Diego based consulting and research firm:

  • Approximately 2.6% of the US Workforce (not including those self-employed) works from home
  • Telework has grown by 80% since 2005
  • The Remote Workforce grew from 2008 – 2012, while the rest of the workforce shrunk
  • Federal employee telecommuting has grown by 421% since 2005; for-profit telecommuting grew by 87.6%
  • Approximately 25 million American employees telecommute part-time

What are the perks of NOT working remotely?

Albert Qian is a long time Think Tanker; from previous discussions I knew that he preferred working in a traditional office over telecommuting.

After working remotely for a couple of years, he felt that he received very little employee development. Near the end of his contract, he got a quick thank you and nothing else. It was odd to him, and he felt it very impersonal.

While Albert likes to be able to work from home at times, he relishes the opportunity to get to know his coworkers and quickly get answers to his questions. Receiving feedback on how he is doing as an employee is something he needs, and feels is more easily done in a traditional work space.

While working remotely, his face time with coworkers and supervisors was limited, making it more difficult for him to learn and prove his value.

Challenges of working remotely

Most of our panel has worked or currently works remotely part-time, and for Kelsey, who can work from home as often as she wants, it comes with a price. She gave an example of an occurrence that very day where her boss went into a coworkers office to discuss something, and she missed out.

She thinks there is a higher barrier to entry when you work remotely; even though she is super connected and has access to video conferencing whenever necessary, and great IT support, she often receives information later than others because in office staff choose to delay giving her that information until she’s IN the office.

One benefit Kelsey pointed out is that she has been forced to greatly improve her written communication because of telecommuting.

Training a remote workforce

Kelsey’s comments on the need for excellent written communication made me wonder about training for working remotely. Had any of our panel been instructed on the need for such communication, what they should do in person vs. remotely, HR issues etc?

The answer was a definite NO.

Tiffany’s company has a policy where employees must prove that they have the technology to be able to work from home. Her company has engaged in telecommuting for a long time, but still has no formal training on remote workplace issues.

Remote mentoring

Samantha worked for the Canadian Undergraduate Technology Conference, which was spread across Canada and partnered with people in industries for mentoring. Her mentor was in Vancouver – literally across the country, but she received regular and useful mentoring. Her thoughts on this are:

I think you have to be in an environment that cultivates mentoring. It was part of our mandate to create a leadership team that cultivates mentoring.

Is focus greater at home?

Most of our panelists mentioned that they saved work that requires intense concentration for the days they worked at home, where a coworker couldn’t barge in, AND where they couldn’t easily manufacture workplace distractions themselves.

Tiffany saves her grant writing projects for her work from home days. She also pointed out that she doesn’t necessarily function best in the 9 – 5 hours; her creativity may peak after hours. Working from home allows her to do that work in the hours best suited to her.

TJ, who spent years in IT, seconded that notion and talked about how easy it was to be distracted at the office; at home, alone, he had an easier time staying on task.

The cost of a remote workforce

Much has been written about the bottom line benefits of having a remote workforce; that may all be true when your employees are telecommuting 100% of the time. However, all of our panel works remotely only part time, meaning that their employers still must provide a work space at their place of business. In these cases it means that the cost of working remotely is usually born by the employee.

This made me question the security an employer faces; if you are not paying for the phone/internet/technology your employee uses to work, what protection are you giving up when it comes to intellectual ownership?

Tiffany sees the ability to work from home once a week as an important perk, and doesn’t expect her employer to pay for anything. For her non-profit, the flexibility to work from home provides an advantage against companies who can’t.

Productivity Benefits for Employers

Our panel spoke about working off hours, and the reality is that not having to physically commute and flexibility means that many employees work more hours than they would at a 9 – 5 traditional job.

Albert sees himself as more productive at home, despite the fact that he prefers a traditional work space.

TJ saw a different angle; not only are employees expected to be more productive, they’re expected to be on call all of the time.

Pulling back remote workforces

I asked about Marissa Meyer’s decision to pull back telecommuting at Yahoo, and Albert thought it was smart. Apparently a large portion of Yahoo employees were spending work time building their own side businesses.

Albert also referenced Meg Whitman’s decision to pull back remote workers at HP after seeing a ton of empty cubicles. After the next restructuring HP brought everyone back within an hour’s commute of an HP Campus; anyone outside of those regions was let go or had to move.

Albert said it was painful as they lost 60% of their marketing staff, and many long term employees. Despite the best efforts of leadership, Albert felt the morale decline steeply.

What’s worth more: Money or Remote Working?

Tiffany chose money over remote working, primarily because of the nature of her job where she is out networking for a good part of her job.

TJ also chose the money; he couldn’t deal with being alone 24/7, which made me think that extroverts would struggle much more with remote working.

Samantha, our resident ‘anxious,’ type A personality, had no trouble choosing remote working over money any day. For her, an introvert, it was as clear as day.

Kelsey also chose the remote work over money; even though she needs to see people, having the freedom to work from home is too important to her. Being told WHERE to be and when is something that she can’t stomach.

The Bad Parts of Telecommuting

Samantha zeroed right in on tech issues as a major problem working from home. There is no IT person to come into your home office and fix your issues.

Connectivity speed in the US, far behind most of Europe, is also an issue.

Remote Workforce etiquette

I asked about the ‘rules’ for when you email/respond if you’re working remotely. Tiffany talked about a boss’s 10pm email that you feel requires a response immediately even if they don’t expect it.

TJ, in the banking industry, regularly gets requests from customers outside of standard business hours. He responds immediately and sees that as his trademark. He thinks that connectivity means that THIS is the way the world is going.

Kelsey talked about coworkers who may not be able to discriminate between what is urgent and what is important. She deals with it by having her cell phone number in her email signature and makes it a point not to answer emails during weekends or social time.

It is clear that the employee must decide how they are going to run their own lives in order to avoid work becoming all consuming. Tiffany brought up the interruptions of other people in your home as an added distraction, reinforcing for me that employees need to have discipline and control their remote environment as much as possible.

HR implications, and sensitivities

Our previous hangout on workplace issues taught us that despite the hype around a world that’s more connected than ever, Millennials still prefer important conversations face to face. It made me wonder how HR handles difficult conversations.

Samantha felt that important conversations should have privacy protections and security – and I don’t know that you can guarantee that over video chat.

Think about this: having a delicate conversation is tough enough – imagine video cutting out in the midst of an important point.

Tiffany thinks that she needs to be far more calculated in video conferences, as she doesn’t have the luxury of time to ‘talk out issues.’ She also realizes she can hide visual cues when she is frustrated, but also misses those same cues from the people she is conferencing with.

In the end, nothing really equals face to face conversation when important issues are at stake.


  • Not everyone wants to work remotely; our panel all sees clear advantages to the traditional office space.
  • If you are creating a full or even part time remote workforce, it would be wise to have clear rules and even training on how to best communicate; a remote workforce etiquette would be helpful.
  • One huge benefit of telecommuting is the ability for employees to intensely focus on important tasks.
  • Part-time telecommuting is seen as a big perk, but raises questions about security when the employee is supplying all of the tools and technology necessary to do so.
  • Extroverts and people who gain their energy from human interactions find remote working much more challenging.
  • As the remote workforce grows, HR faces some of the biggest challenges when it comes to privacy and sensitivity issues for remote workers.

At ArCompany we  analyze data gathered from social media, websites, forums and search. This research helps inform and guide the communication efforts of many brands. If you want to learn more about implementing meaningful insights, we’re here to help.

Photo credit: workspace via photopin (license).

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