Remote work for economic development: A conversation with Laurel Farrer
February 6, 2020

It’s not all poolside meetings and taking calls on the beach: remote work is serious business for this week’s podcast guest.

On this week’s episode of More Beach Meetings, we spoke to Laurel Farrer, a Remote Work Strategist and Consultant. Laurel works with some of the top remote-friendly companies in the world. She helps them optimize communications, update processes, and capitalize on the benefits of remote work. Laurel also contributes to high-level strategy in governments, businesses, and companies who want the benefits of a remote workforce.

At the start of her career, Laurel was an operations manager in the services industry. She gained firsthand experience in taking her team remote 12 years ago. What she learned in the process, Laurel has since continued to build on. She’s become an expert on remote work to stimulate economic growth. Listen to our conversation below.

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The Seriousness of Remote Work

Laurel sees bigger possibilities for remote work beyond the attention-grabbing headlines in the media. “The media is doing a great job of publicizing and bringing attention to remote work, but I feel like it’s the wrong kind of attention,” Laurel explains.

The discussion of remote work tends to revolve around the benefits for the employee. There are many benefits for today’s professional – getting to work on the beach, for example. But, the true value of remote work lies in the benefit to the business, culture, and communities. There is significant socio-economic impact to increasing the number of virtual jobs, Laurel argues. That’s what she’s passionate about. Laurel advocates for those benefits to companies, governments, and other organizations.

Laurel’s work has been advising many economic development initiatives. They are beginning to converge – but they didn’t start out that way. She’s examining tourism, reviving rural areas, and diversifying a city’s industries. These areas of inquiry all lead to the same solution: virtual jobs. Remote work can balance out the economic peaks and valleys of tourism. Virtual work can bring technical experts with new skill sets and interests to a city. And, for areas too far from an urban center, virtual work circumvents the obstacle of the long commute.

Updating today’s work culture for remote work

Virtual jobs are in a supply and demand crisis. With all of the media attention about remote work, it seems easy to get a remote job. That’s not the case. Consistent, high-paying, stable remote work is extremely difficult to find, according to Laurel. It’s going to take all parties involved – from governments to unions, companies to employees – to address this problem.

Laurel is focusing her efforts on the employers. She wants to help them convert their operations from physical to virtual. Laurel works on two things: virtual communication channels with digitized resources, and updating the management mindset. “The first step is usually a lot of myth-busting,” says Laurel. “It’s helping them understand the benefits and advantages of a flexible workforce. It’s putting a lot of fears at ease because the company has been misinformed.” Then, Laurel implements the infrastructure and the company begins to reap the benefits of remote work.

In her experience, the biggest mistake that most organizations make is in thinking that all they need to do is send everyone home to work. It’s not that simple: and that’s when destructive cases like IBM and Yahoo happen. Laurel emphasizes that the right knowledge and preparation are critical to making sure remote work is sustainable. Intentional change is the name of the game for converting to remote work.

After tackling the mindset change, Laurel stresses that accessibility is key to the digitization and communication approach. “If someone is working offsite, do they have access to the resources they need in order to do their job? Digitization has really exploded as a trend, and people tend to get overwhelmed in the change management of it,” says Laurel. “It doesn’t need to be that complicated.” Employees just need the right tools, access, and support they need to submit their work productively.

A common pitfall for many companies is to do a lot of paperwork, usually just for the sake of tradition. Moving away from physical forms can be a challenge for some companies, but the process itself isn’t difficult to implement. It’s another intentional change that businesses must factor in when making virtual work an option.

Remote work and economic development

What’s the motivation for companies and cities to add remote roles? The numbers speak for themselves. “We see huge – absolutely enormous – productivity savings [for companies],” says Laurel. “Global workplace analytics estimates it to be $11,000 per part-time employee just for productivity costs alone. That’s not including the overhead costs. Companies save on real estate and office facilities. These costs don’t include the retention and recruiting costs that are so much lower. The list goes on.” Remote work saves companies a ton of money with immediate impact. Likewise, remote work empowers marginalized groups and rural communities in need of investment. In her article, “Building a City in the Cloud,” Laurel outlines the ways the virtual workers can bring economic growth. “When a resident acquires a local job, they earn a wage. That wage is used to pay for living supplies (such as a mortgage, groceries and entertainment) from nearby businesses—the businesses then contribute taxes to the local infrastructure, which then uses the funds to provide resources to attract new businesses and residents, which then repeats the cycle.”

Laurel calls for governments to provide the infrastructure to communities to attract remote workers. With help, rural areas can attract virtual workers and grow. High-speed internet is the number one priority to beginning to attract virtual workers. Other support structures, like meeting spaces and networking events can attract remote workers. Even things like green space, cafes, and restaurants, and visas are needed to support this working tribe.

Some cities and countries have already taken steps to become more remote worker-friendly. Oklahoma and Vermont are two leaders in the US incentivizing remote workers to move right in. Italy also offers an incentive to come and stay. “Offering benefits like a low corporate tax structure to start a business for cheap is cool,” says Laurel. “There are other ideas that take unused spaces, like restaurants closed for the morning, and turn that space into coworking spaces. I love seeing these new innovative approaches to remote work.”

The role of education in the future of remote work

In another of her articles for Forbes, Laurel writes that 63% of businesses use a virtual workforce in some capacity. For graduates, there’s an increasing chance that their first job out of school could be remote. “If education is only designed with colocated environments in mind, the current academic experience of a graduate may be incomplete and could put them at a disadvantage when entering the workforce,” Laurel notes.

Remote work is work: in many ways, it’s not that different from any other professional role. But, there are some nuances that students and young professionals need to be equipped for. Future remote workers will need a unique set of soft skills to thrive, according to research. Communication, self-motivation, trustworthiness, and discipline are all qualities that remote workers must develop.

Laurel is working with SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, to incorporate the concepts of virtual work team collaboration into colleges and universities. The goal is to equip the next generation of workers to work from anywhere. “What’s missing is the practice and dynamics of working together with people in a virtual format. We need to see more soft skills practice – empathy, communication, proactivity. We want to teach skills that in traditional work structures are nice to have, but not essential,” notes Laurel.

Bottom line: remote work is about more than beach meetings (although at Surf Office, we’re all for beach meetings). The economic benefits of this new way to work are still being discovered. We can’t wait to see how this field grows and helps communities all over the world. Listen to more stories on remote work, retreats, and company culture, download SurfOffice’s podcast, “More Beach Meetings.” Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.

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