Sara Sutton, founder of FlexJobs and Remote.co, says companies will likely maintain expanded remote work opportunities for employees permanently.

Aug 28 2020

Q&A: How Can Businesses Build Sustainable Remote Work?

As workplaces reopen, remote-work pioneer Sara Sutton has ideas on how employers can apply what they’ve learned this year.

Sara Sutton was advocating for remote work long before it became essential. The founder of FlexJobs, a career site for candidates seeking work-from-home opportunities, and Remote.co, a resource for businesses managing remote teams, Sutton has long argued that employers with robust remote work programs benefit from them as much as their employees do.

In a conversation with BizTech, Sutton explained what businesses are learning from the massive remote work experiment they’re going through, and how they’ll likely apply those lessons in the future.

BIZTECH: What are businesses learning right now about remote work?

Sutton: It’s not an exaggeration to call this the largest remote work experiment in history, with thousands of companies moving their operations to remote work in a matter of days. At this point, from an organizational perspective, I think the lesson being learned now is how to come up with a sustainable and strategic plan to integrate the “new norms” around remote working and health guidelines. It’s one thing to be in a crisis, all-hands-on-deck mode initially, but now is the time to regroup, take a deep breath and start to plan what the next steps really look like to ensure resilience.

WATCH: Looking for a long-term fix for your business's collaboration challenges? Learn how to enable productive remote work with the right solution management.

BIZTECH: How do you expect companies to handle remote work policies after the pandemic is over?

Sutton: The speed with which companies were able to successfully adapt to remote work during this crisis, and the positive results of implementing remote work to maintain efficiency and productivity under the most extreme circumstances, show just how vital remote work is to the future — and, truly, the present — of work. We’re seeing surveys of companies that previously did not have large remote workforces, where executives have already decided to keep at least portions of their teams remote permanently.

And large companies like Facebook, Twitter and Shopify have announced massive moves toward remote work as a permanent business shift. The move toward remote work has been happening slowly and steadily for the past 10 to 15 years, but COVID-19 accelerated the shift significantly.

BIZTECH: What are the benefits of remote work, and why didn’t more companies aggressively pursue them sooner?

Sutton: Over the past three months, companies have experienced what remote work can do for their business strategy, their operations and their employees. The benefits include increased productivity — even during a pandemic — a reduced environmental footprint, cost savings, improved employee satisfaction and healthier teams, to name just a few.

But until now, remote work had been seen by too many companies as a perk rather than a beneficial business strategy. The reliance on 20th-century management practices persisted because companies felt people needed to be in their seats in an office for managers to feel confident that they were working. Unfortunately, that type of “face time” management far from guarantees productivity, but there was a fear of letting go of the sense of control that it falsely gave many leaders and managers. When the pandemic began, companies had no alternative — the choice was between closing down businesses, at least temporarily, or adopting remote work immediately. What we’ve seen is that, when tested under such extreme circumstances, remote work holds up as a viable option, and this has led to countless company leaders rapidly changing their minds to embrace it.

BIZTECH: What are the differences between successful and unsuccessful remote work programs?

Sutton: Companies with the most successful remote work programs make communication a priority for everyone in the company, especially so that employees can communicate what they need during this unprecedented time. We created a quick spreadsheet to help companies do exactly this.

They also give their people the tools and equipment they need to be communicative and productive from home. Whether that’s sending employees specific equipment, such as a second monitor, keyboard, mouse or headset, or giving them a stipend to purchase this equipment on their own, helping each person set up a functional home office is going to be a critical element to their success in the weeks and months ahead.

Finally, they help managers and employees focus on what they can control. So much is out of our control right now. It’s a really good idea to have everyone do a thought exercise where they write down what they can and cannot control, and then communicate this with the appropriate people and teams. This will help everyone focus in the right direction, support each other and keep moving forward.

WATCH: Learn how to prepare for the workplace of the future as businesses consider returning to the office.

BIZTECH: Just about every business deploys videoconferencing and instant messaging. What other technologies should they consider to optimize employees’ remote work experience?

Sutton: At Remote.co, we surveyed more than 140 remote teams and companies about their most-used tools and technology. The top tools used by remote teams to make work go smoothly include instant messaging or chat programs, such as Google Chat and Skype; screensharing apps like Google Hangouts; and videoconferencing solutions like Google Hangouts, Skype or Zoom. Document-sharing tools like Google Drive or Dropbox are also popular.

BIZTECH: Are there do’s and don’ts or best practices for using collaboration solutions optimally?

Test different programs with small groups or teams before deciding to deploy a solution companywide, and be clear about which tools should be used for what. 

Photography by Jeff Nelson/BizTech Magazine