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Telecommuters not working out? It’s not the flexibility that’s the problem; it’s your training program

Are you seeing a surge in low morale and unproductivity among your remote workers? Research suggests that it may be your lack of strategy and training that’s to blame, not the flexibility.

According to new national research from the Flex+Strategy Group (FSG), major corporations such as IBM may have gotten it wrong when they cited remote work as a barrier to innovation and collaboration and asked employees to relocate back to company offices.

Flexibility in where, when, and how you work—including remote work—leads to innovation, as well as communication, creativity, productivity, and engagement, suggests FSG’s research.

“Organizations that blame flexibility for their performance challenges risk missing out on the very business gains they’re trying to achieve,” says flexible workplace strategist Cali Williams Yost, CEO, Flex+Strategy Group. “The flexibility is not the problem. It’s that organizations don’t know how to use the flexibility and remote work strategically to transform their business.”

Remote work here to stay and mostly done by men

While IBM attracted notice last year when it discontinued its remote work program, more than one-third of U.S. full-time employees now do most of their work from a remote location, 34 percent in 2017. That’s up slightly from 31 percent in 2013, and men remain the majority of remote workers. Regardless of where employees are located, almost all (98%) report some form of work flexibility.

Flexibility improves—not impedes—communication, creativity, productivity, and engagement

Of those who do work flexibly, 45 percent of respondents feel that flexibility increases their ability to “communicate, create, and innovate with colleagues.” Only 5 percent report a decrease, with 49 percent saying it remains the same. Further, 60 percent who have flexible work options feel they’re “more productive and engaged.” Only 4 percent say they are less so, with 34 percent feeling their level of productivity and engagement is consistent.

Remote workers also noted the same performance benefits. Among remote workers, 41 percent feel their flexibility increases communication, creativity, and innovation, with only 4 percent reporting a decline. A majority also feels more productive and engaged (58%), with only 2 percent saying they are less so.

Training key but lacking for majority of flexible workers

While almost all employees report having some degree of work flexibility, the majority (57%) receive no training or guidance on how to manage it. Fewer reported receiving such instruction than previously—only 42 percent in 2017 compared to 47 percent in 2015. That’s a red flag for Yost, who notes the investment in training and resources to support flexibility has significant and positive business impacts.

“You can’t simply give employees a laptop and say ‘just get your job done’ without meaningful training on how to strategically use flexibility, technology, and workspace options to work smarter,” says Yost.

In the FSG study, there was a notable difference between those employees who received training and felt their flexibility makes them more productive and engaged (70%) versus those without training who also noted an increase (53%). Similarly, there was a significant difference between those flexible workers who did receive training and report their ability to communicate, create, and innovate increases (53%) compared to only 39 percent among those who didn’t receive guidance.

“This national data validates the productivity and collaboration increases we’ve seen firsthand following training and pilot programs with clients, including Con Edison and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center,” explains Yost. “Organizations that invest in building a high performance flexible work culture—with the right training, tools and techniques to best facilitate how, when and where employees work—see positive and measurable results.”

Technology fuels collaboration and flexible work but remains old-school

More than three-quarters (76%) of all respondents in the FSG study feel advancements in workplace technology have made it easier to team up with and communicate with colleagues, and 58 percent said it has made it easier to work flexibly. Employees that received flexibility training were more likely to note those positive views. However, despite widespread availability of collaborative technologies that improve efficiency, most employees (65%) go old-school using email, spreadsheets and word documents as their “frequently” used tools to update supervisors and colleagues about work progress and performance. Only 17 percent noted frequent use of video/web conferencing and just 8 percent frequently used cloud-based project management software.

Soft skills training also required

For employers who are concerned that remote workers are too distracted by the comforts of home to be wholly engaged in their work, consider the results of the “Udemy In Depth: 2018 Workplace Distraction Report.” This report measures how distracted employees are during work hours, how they’re responding to distractions, and the price of distraction for employers and the American economy at large.

According to the Udemy report, 69% of full-time employees surveyed report being distracted at work. The top sources of employee distraction include:

  • Chatty coworkers (80%)
  • Office noise (70%)
  • Feeling overwhelmed by changes at work (61%)
  • Meetings (60%)
  • Social media (56)

In this report, 40% of respondents believe that flexible/remote work options can reduce workplace distraction, and 52% of respondents say they are more productive when working remotely.

The Udemy research found that although 70% of respondents agree that training could help them learn to focus and manage their time better, 66% have never brought this up to their managers.

“It’s shocking that 54% of employees attribute their underperformance to workplace distractions, but it’s also clear that companies have the power to change that statistic by investing in training,” says Darren Shimkus, general manager for Udemy for Business. “By embracing a learning culture and prioritizing training and development, businesses can help develop employees that keep up with nonstop technology and are competitive, competent, and engaged.”


When people are engaged, they report being more motivated, confident, and happy, and feel they deliver higher quality work. And, based on these surveys, opportunities around learning and development are the top drivers of engagement.

“Not everyone needs to be ‘shoulder to shoulder’ five days a week for successful team work,” Yost says. “With a purpose-driven flexible work strategy and infrastructure, organizations can match work to how, when, and where it’s most effective, and retain employees who value control over how to manage their work and lives.”

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