Queen of Remote Work: Q&A with Sara Sutton
In a recent interview, Sara Sutton was proclaimed the “Queen of Remote Work.” And though she would be the last to sing her own praises, she truly is a leader in the remote workspace—both within her own companies as well as the much bigger role she has taken on to help other organizations and workers to learn about, integrate, and optimize the benefits that remote working offers.
Since 2007, when Sara founded FlexJobs as a premium job service to help professionals find flexible and remote jobs, she has been blazing a path to change the perception of work-from-home jobs as only low-level, unskilled, and unprofessional jobs, to instead highlight the very real technologically-advanced, viable, and productive career opportunities that remote jobs also represent. Not only did she create FlexJobs as an entirely remote company itself, she also continued her efforts to shine a light on the economic, social, and environmental importance of remote work and other types of work flexibility with the advocacy site 1 Million for Work Flexibility, founded in 2013. And most recently, Sara launched yet another website, Remote.co, this past fall, creating a much-needed resource for individuals and organizations interested in learning about and integrating remote work.
So who exactly is this queen of remote (and flexible!) work, and why should everyone be taking remote work seriously? Let’s find out.
Q1: Why is remote work so important to you?
Sara Sutton: It really all started back in 2006 when I came up with the idea for FlexJobs. I was about to have my first son, and I wanted to find a job that was professionally challenging, in line with my career path, AND that would offer options like flexible scheduling and telecommuting. But it proved to be really difficult to pinpoint those types of jobs on traditional job boards, even though I knew they existed from my own experience of telecommuting in previous roles. I researched the competitive landscape and realized there was an opportunity to create a top notch, trustworthy job service dedicated to helping professionals like myself who wanted to find legitimate, flexible job options without having to sift through all the scams, ads, and junk.
Over the last nine years, I’ve had the privilege of growing FlexJobs into a thriving company with a completely distributed team of remote workers who all work from home. Hearing the stories, not only of my team members, but also of the many job seekers and companies who use our site, it became very clear that remote work was a growing and important way of working, but it was still relatively disjointed, without a clear resource for people to learn how to do it or what it means. And that’s why I started Remote.co—to bring together first-hand experiences and ideas from individuals and organizations, so that we can all make the most of this incredible way of working.
Q2: What are some of the benefits people and companies experience through remote work?
Sara Sutton: The general perception is that remote working, and flexible work options as a whole, only offer benefits to employees. In fact, in a recent study that we underwrote with World at Work, from the 375 large North American companies surveyed, only 3 percent reported any effort to track the ROI of their work flexibility programs.
So, that being said, it’s important for companies to know that on a very basic economic level, there are cost-savings benefits for those who integrate remote work options. Study after study shows that telecommuting can lead to increased productivity, reduced turnover, fewer sick days, higher employee satisfaction, and significant overhead and real estate cost savings—all of which lead to substantial opportunities for bottom-line benefits. And on the recruiting front, it allows employers the chance to dramatically expand their candidate pools. A 2014 survey of hiring managers found that 83 percent said it was “somewhat difficult” or “very difficult” to fill job openings. Through telecommuting, a company can hire candidates outside its geographic area without worrying about costly relocation services, should the best recruit live across the country.
For the people who want and/or need remote work options, there are a wide variety of benefits, but from a survey of professionals who want flexible jobs, we found that work-life balance is the number one reason people look for flexible and remote jobs. With remote work in particular, professionals say these are the reasons why they’re more productive at home:
- fewer interruptions from colleagues (76 percent)
- fewer distractions (74 percent)
- minimal office politics (71 percent)
- reduced stress from commuting (68 percent)
- more comfortable office environment (65 percent)
And there’s just as much variety in who wants remote work, in addition to why they want it. For example, people living in rural or economically-depressed areas can expand their job searches dramatically through remote work. Working parents or caregivers can use remote work to more successfully balance (or juggle, depending on how you look at it!) all of the obligations in their work and personal lives. Military spouses have a very difficult time connecting with and maintaining careers through their spouses’ many moves, deployments, and reassignments. And people at or near retirement are using remote work as a way to continue their careers, try something new, or provide needed income for their second acts. And overall, anyone who wants to be happier with their work and personal lives should consider remote work because studies have shown that working from home makes people happier.
These are just some of the reasons—there are many others—why people in all careers, at all levels, from all backgrounds, and in all circumstances seek out remote work.
Q3: What are the challenges of working remotely?
Sara Sutton: I wouldn’t call them challenges, but rather considerations. Working remotely is not, and I repeat NOT, for everybody—especially roles that are 100 percent remote. While I personally love it, as do many others, to have successful remote work situations, it’s important that both professionals and companies are honest in assessing whether it’s a good fit for both the role and the person.
For example, if you don’t have a dedicated space where you feel comfortable and confident that you can work without interruptions (whether it’s in your home or at a shared workspace, coffee shop, or library), then remote working is probably not conducive, no matter how much you may want to do it. Or, if you’re someone who really derives enjoyment from an active social life at work, then working remotely may feel isolating, because you’re physically alone all day. One solution is to come up with some additional social outlets for yourself.
Another consideration that many people don’t anticipate is the importance of setting clear boundaries for yourself—both for when you need to work AND when you need to stop work. If you’re not particularly self-disciplined, then this type of work arrangement may end up being a recipe for disaster with you either slacking off or, at the other end of the spectrum, letting “work creep” burn you out. A number of the remote company executives we talked to have offered their tips for managing work-life balance in a remote work environment.
But beyond the more situational considerations, I would say the most critical ongoing consideration is the importance of proactive communication. Both workers and managers need to actively shift their strategies for keeping in touch; away from relying on “face time” and loosely defined meetings that tend to be heavily used in traditional offices and instead more to supportive and productive methods that focus on team-building, key performance indicators, and collaboration.
Q4: FlexJobs and Remote.co have completely remote teams. How do you make that work?
Sara Sutton: First, I’ll say that we’re only one case study among many, so be sure to check out all the Remote Company Q&As on Remote.co for more great ideas on creating successful remote and distributed teams!
Communication is a vital part of our success, so we’ve had to test a lot of platforms and methods for communicating effectively with one another. Thankfully, right from the start, we’ve been open to trying a variety of options before choosing which one works the best for us, so that we’re able to find communication tools that really support our specific needs. Also, we have been proactive about evolving our methods as our needs have changed through our growth as a flexible work environment. What works when your team is only three people is very different than what will work when you have 50 people, for example.
Also, creating a company culture is an interesting task in a virtual environment, but it’s incredibly important. Our culture is inclusive, open, hard-working, fun, communicative, collaborative, and founded in the overarching theme of integrity. And it was built this way in a very purposeful manner. We think about how to translate traditional office happenings into a virtual environment, and that’s led us to try activities like virtual trivia happy hours, virtual yoga classes, and even a remote book club. The key is really to be open to trying lots of things, and to seek the feedback of everyone we work with to see what would be most helpful to them.
Q5: What do you see for the future of remote work? What can we expect in the next five or ten years?
Sara Sutton: All signs point to growth when it comes to remote work. A recent study found that telecommuting has grown 103 percent in the last 10 years. I think one trend we’ll continue to see is remote work being embraced all across the country and around the world, outside of the economic powerhouses where you might expect it, like Silicon Valley, New York or London. In the U.S., we’ve found really interesting data on where the most people are working from home, with states like Montana, Vermont, Colorado, Oregon, and Idaho leading the way.
I believe it is going to be critical that more companies start to create formalized, well-crafted policies for remote and flexible work for their teams. Right now, there’s a big disconnect between the number of companies that say they offer flexible and remote work options—80 percent—and the number of companies that have specific policies in place to support these options—only 37 percent. What that means is that they are behind the curve in how they are managing both their workers and the technology that they are using to work, which can create data security problems, among other HR concerns.
It’s such an exciting moment in the timeline of remote work. People have been working from home for decades in small doses, but it’s fairly recent that it’s now moving to the forefront of work policy discussions, and being adopted by small and large companies alike. There are a few trends contributing to this that I think will continue to grow in the coming years. Technology finally makes it easy for most people to be able to work from home. High-speed Internet and relatively inexpensive computers and devices allow people to stay connected to work no matter their location. And the youngest generation in the workforce—millennials—see remote and flexible work as a necessary, undeniable way of work. They’re already the largest generation in the workforce, and as they assume more leadership positions, this mentality is likely to spread even further.
Allowing ad hoc flexible work options without oversight or intention isn’t a smart long-term strategy for companies. By formalizing flex-work programs and putting structure around them, they can track metrics, measure progress, and quantify goals and outcomes. Remote work can and should support a healthier, more productive, and stronger bottom line when implemented proactively and strategically.
By Brie Weiler Reynolds | January 12, 2016 | Categories: Why Go Remote