Remote workers are becoming more prevalent in today's business world. Many industries and companies now allow employees to work from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection, causing a major shift in trends to accommodate these changes. As the population of telecommuters continues to grow, experts weigh in on the present and future of remote work.
How remote work has evolved
There was a time when working from home as the modern workforce knows it wasn't even a possibility. If your colleagues and business partners wanted to get in touch with you when you were out of the office, they couldn't email, text or instant-message you. You would have needed to provide an alternate phone number (or pager or fax number) and communicate that way. And full-time "remote" positions were different from what they are today.
"Ten years ago, remote employment basically meant a telemarketing or customer service position at below minimum wage," said Samantha Lambert, director of human resources at website design company Blue Fountain Media. "It rarely was connected with a full-time career. Nowadays, technology affords us the ability to get the same job done, no matter where in the world we are. [It has] enabled us to be in contact with co-workers or clients at any time."
One of the most helpful technologies in making remote work seamless is videoconferencing. Live video feeds help out-of-office workers see and speak to one another in real time, anywhere they are, which is the next best thing to a face-to-face meeting. But this capability wouldn't be possible without the widespread broadband internet adoption that's occurred over the past 10 to 15 years.
"Video over the internet could not really happen until the vast majority of consumers had broadband deployed everywhere," said Tim Treanor, CEO of OVS Media, a company that specializes in live broadcasting government and nonprofit web content. "Corporate events and meetings are being webcast live over the internet to reach stakeholders who could not attend, and smaller internal meetings. This content can now be available live over the internet for collaboration for remote workers and teams."
Certain companies have even done away with renting a traditional office and instead run their business out of a shared co-working space to accommodate their largely remote workforce.
"Shared office spaces, where remote employees can gather to work, have been created and are more widely available in different cities," Lambert said. "This in itself represents the growing amount of remote workers in recent years."
The current state of remote work
Because of these advances in communication technology and internet access, teleworking has become a fairly accepted practice in many offices, both in the U.S. and globally.
"The modern workforce is increasingly mobile, collaborative [and] dynamic, and comprises multi-generations, all with differing communication preferences," said Stacey Epstein, CEO of Zinc. "These workers span multiple industries … all who represent unique challenges when it comes to staying connected while on the job."
Jeff Corbin, CEO and founder of theEMPLOYEEapp, an internal communications platform by APPrise Mobile, said that attitudes toward remote work are changing, and employees have come to expect the ability to work from anywhere.
"There is an expectation that individuals should have the ability and freedom to work remotely and not be confined to an office setting or desk," Corbin told Business News Daily. "There is also an expectation that employees should have instantaneous access to what they need to do their work."
However, according to a study by Zogby Analytics on behalf of Zinc, 41 percent of workers said their company doesn't provide mobile communication tools for the organization. Instead, they rely on old-fashioned tactics like bulletin boards and phone trees – and workers turn to texts, Skype and Facebook Messenger as their main forms of communication.
This lack of messaging platforms and technologies affects company communication. While 71 percent of managers feel up to date on work news, only 40 percent of staff feel the same.
"The result is that information gets lost when individuals, teams and management use different ways to communicate, and the enterprise is at risk because communication and collaboration are happening on platforms that are not secure or trusted," said Epstein.
What the future holds
According to the Zinc survey, IDC expects mobile workers will account for nearly three-quarters of the U.S. workforce by 2020.
"The remote workforce is growing at an astonishing rate … and it'll be up to employers to keep up with the changing needs of their employees," said Epstein. "One of the easiest adjustments management can make is to implement a companywide set of communication standards that simplifies the process for their workers so they're not switching between email, SMS and a slew of apps not secure enough for the enterprise."
Some companies are still on the fence about allowing employees to work outside the office. That approach could be detrimental in the years to come, said Liz Roney, business owner and executive coach of The Leadership Coaching Group.
"More ... candidates require remote work as a condition of employment," said Roney. "Taking the option off the table can prevent you from attracting key people ... your organization needs. Making it worse, the top candidates you miss out on may be headed to your competitors who are offering a remote position."
Current organizations need to make improvements to their remote work policies and capabilities. If a company is concerned about productivity and performance issues associated with a companywide ability to work from home, Lambert recommended creating standard key performance indicators (KPIs) for both management and employees. This way, she said, remote team members are aware of expectations, and their performance can be monitored.
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.