Working from home

Organizations that work remotely: what makes them successful?

On most of the working days, I spend 16 hours in my bedroom. Next to sleeping, I work here. This can really break me up mentally. I won’t be the only one having this challenge? So I wonder, from a company perspective, what can really make a positive difference when working remotely? A deep-dive into the latest research!

Working remote

Working from home is not new, but in COVID times is has become a big topic. In 2004, Peters & Batenburg already wrote about the advantages and disadvantages of working from home. They came to the conclusion that the choice for working from home within organizations is positively related to a higher percentage of highly educated people, a reward system grafted on individual performance, and flexible start and end times. What strikes me is that, according to this study, the organizational culture shows no significant correlation with the choice to work from home.  

Now that the topic has become many times more topical, it is interesting to examine what really makes working from home successful.

Working from home in COVID times

In COVID times, working from home has become an increasingly important topic (Bartik, Cullen, Glaeser, Luca & Stanton, 2020; Kniffin, Narayanan, et al, 2020). Since the beginning of the pandemic, interest in the topic has grown tremendously and there have been numerous publications on remote working in the major scientific platforms. Now it’s interesting to take a look at this theory and explore what really makes working from home successful! Below is a breakdown of the most current articles divided into three dimensions: structure, culture, and leadership. Which of these components really have a positive contribution to working from home?

remote working

Structure in remote organizations

First, let’s look at the structure of organizations. Does it take a different structure to allow remote working? According to a study by Ball (2020), the structure of an organization is a determining factor for working well together remotely. Hierarchy and bureaucracy make organizations spend more time on unimportant matters and therefore organizations are more likely to drown in meetings and operations instead of the topic that really matters: collaboration.

To explore this further, let’s look at examples of other companies that have been working remotely since their inception. Gitlab is one of the most pressing examples where remote working has been successful. However, they have barely changed their structure (Choudhury, Crowston, Dahlander, Minervini & Raghuram, 2020). They work in a traditional tree structure with teams (Gitlab.com, 2020) and their own team leader. And they are not the only ones who work remotely and have hardly changed their structure in the process. Zapier and Culture Amp (Walsh, 2020) are two more examples of organizations that have incorporated remote working from the early days and work in a standard rake model.

So what stands out in these organizations?

At Gitlab, the way they communicate stands out. Transparency and openness are the core values of this organization. From salaries to documentation, from small messages (for example via Slack) or strategic documentation. Everything is available. At Zapier and Culture Amp, this can also be seen. Transparency is a hot topic. They themselves say that this is what makes the organization successful. 

It is striking that they both come to the same conclusion: People who work remotely need more autonomy to make their own decisions. Transparency, they say, is a prerequisite for success. 

People who work remotely need more autonomy to make their own decisions. Transparency, they say, is a prerequisite for success.

So Ball is not right, structure makes working from home successful. These companies show that working from home is perfectly possible in a typical structure. They do not have a custom structure but focus more on values and culture. How does culture affect these factors and the topic of working from home?

Culture at remote organizations

Recent studies show that culture is critical in the success of working from home (Herway & Hickman, 2020). Indeed, it appears that when people work remotely, they receive less recognition and feel that their opinions matter less. Kniffin (2020) adds that the lack of daily social physical contact is a major risk that can cause loneliness and negativity. Again, this leads to performance loss and less commitment to the organization. 

So what aspects of culture are crucial? Stewart & Menon (2020) indicate that a culture where inclusiveness is central ensures better collaboration. A culture where people listen to each other. A successful culture is a flexible culture with a touch of family values. This culture ensures that people pay attention to each other, pay better attention to the personal state of people, and that, in-home working, ensures more social contacts and involvement. 

A culture where inclusiveness is central ensures better collaboration

So culture has become even more important. But how do leaders influence this?

Leadership in remote organizations

Leadership appears to be a desirable topic to explore in this day and age. Many scholars venture into this area and give clear opinions on what leaders should do in times of home working. For example, Neeley (2020) believes that management must change. More effective management is needed to manage home-based teams. This requires different values, such as trust and transparency. Gebremariam (2020) also touches on the need for remote leadership. He describes this as offering employees space, autonomy, and guidance from a distance. This ties in with another trend; servant leadership. Several studies mention the importance of managers serving their employees rather than controlling them (Hill, Kang, & Seo, 2014; Kowalski & Swanson, 2005; Peters & Den Dulk, 2003).

Ball (2020), however, raises another point, leadership must be prepared for remote leadership, but the organization must also allow it. As Neeley pointed out, trust and transparency are not topics that a leader can achieve alone. This requires a change of working together.

leadership must be prepared for remote leadership, but the organization must also allow it

Conclusions

The structure does not need to be changed in order to work better and more effectively at home. Above all, the cooperation between people needs to change, i.e. the culture of the organization. Leaders have a great influence on this. Autonomy must be created for employees. Trust, inclusiveness and transparency are the key components that can make this successful.

But how do you begin such a complex change? How do you change culture? It’s super difficult. One important thing: by doing! So if you want to make the culture more suitable for working from home, prototyping is extremely good for that, because it is itself inclusive. That way you can build trust and transparency together. Using small prototypes to increase autonomy, make the company more transparent and build inclusivity.

References

Ball, C. G. (2020). Leadership during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. Canadian Journal of Surgery, 63(4), E370–E371.

Bartik, A., Cullen, Z., Glaeser, E., Luca, M. & Stanton, C. (2020). How the COVID-19 crisis is reshaping remote working.

Choudhury, P., Crowston, K., Dahlander, L., Minervini, M.S. & Raghuram, S. (2020). GitLab: work where you want, when you want. Journal of Organization Design volume 9, Article number: 23.

De Vries, H., Tummers, L., & Bekkers, V. (2018b). The benefits of teleworking in the public sector: Reality or rhetoric? Review of Public Personnel Administration.

Geberemariam, T.K. (2020). Public Work Engineering Leadership Challenges in COVID-19 Era: A Boss, a Manager, or a Leader International Journal of Engineering and Management Research, Volume 10, Issue 6 (December 2020).

Herway, J. & Hickman, A. (2020). Remote Work: Is It a Virtual Threat to Your Culture? 

Hill, N. S., Kang, J. H., & Seo, M. (2014). The interactive effect of leader-member
exchange and electronic communication on employee psychological empowerment and work outcomes. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(4), 772-783.

Kniffin, K. M., Narayanan, J. et al (2020). COVID-19 and the workplace: Implications, issues, and insights for future research and action. American Psychologist, 2020.

Neeley, T, (2020). 15 Questions About Remote Work, Answered.

Walsh, M (2020). The Key to Building a Successful Remote Organization? 

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