The shifting desirability of where and how we want to live, combined with changes in the job market and advances in technology, will increasingly lead to geographically dispersed workforces. This is especially true for those who render value in knowledge-based businesses. In other words, the local sandwich shop will employ fewer remote workers than, say, a software startup or a research, law, or financial services firm.
The geographically distributed future of work raises questions about how, and even whether, employers should invest in their remote employees. Engendering loyalty and investing in your team are two goals that overlap, but not entirely. Empathy is essential to both goals. It's important to understand why an employee is working remotely — is it their desire to be ex-urban? their need to live near extended family? Their enthusiasm for a more lucrative job than is locally available to them? problems with childcare?
Employers need to overlay that empathy with data pertaining to the job and relevant workforce. Is the job a low-wage, medium-wage or high-wage job? In the US, “low-wage jobs accounted for the largest increase in new jobs between 2011 and 2016,” Professor Richard Florida explained in CityLab this month. Express EXPR +3.19% Employment published survey data showing that 77% of temp staffing agencies surveyed expect recent college grads to stay in their first job for a year or less. Bob Funk, formerly chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, analyzed the survey and concluded “Many in the Millennial generation are taking jobs that they are over-qualified for and thus are eager to move on when something better appears...” If your workforce is remote, over-qualified and likely to move on in the near term, does it make business sense to invest in the team? What if, conversely, it's a dream job but an employee simply can't afford to live nearby?
Regardless of your employee's situation and work motivation, it always makes sense to invest in the team. The real question employers must ask is how to invest. Employers will find valuable answers by understanding the motivation and situation of remote employees. Short term employees who work remotely while awaiting the next “better offer” might thrive on simply being treated humanely in a lower-paying gig. The opportunity to skip a grinding commute (and most likely enjoy lower housing costs) could afford them ample time to explore the great outdoors, for instance. For these workers, those job attributes may mean they stay longer (reducing rapid turnover costs) or leave happier - and given every former employee's ability to publish a review of their employer, having them “leave happier” is a worthy goal. In contrast, for highly motivated workers (and often higher-wage jobs), a clearly articulated path for advancement and an opportunity to tackle the hardest problems (especially while working in concert with more-senior team members, wherever located), may engender greater loyalty and “employment stickiness.” In either case, it is increasingly critical for employers with geographically dispersed teams to match the incentives with the mindsets of their team members.
Ed Zimmerman founded & Chairs Lowenstein Sandler LLP's Tech Group. He has taught VC/Angel Investing in Columbia's MBA program for a decade. Ed invests in startups & venture funds.