Smith Engineering/Energy Insights/Customers/To Be, Or Not To Be Remote, That Is The Question
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To Be, Or Not To Be Remote, That Is The Question

Before 2020 remote work was not the same topic it has become today. Remote work was a luxury not afforded to most people. Then 2020 hit and every company had to adapt to the changes precipitated by Covid, which meant most employees worked from home. Now, remote work has become such a divisive topic that industry leaders are chiming in on the issue.

Notably, there was opposition to remote work from Elon Musk, who tweeted, “Remote work is no longer acceptable.” People who are unwilling to abide by the new rules can “pretend to work somewhere else,” and Goldman Sachs, CEO David Solomon calls remote work “an aberration that we are going to correct as soon as possible.”

Yet, in reality, the opinions from corporate leaders have been as wide-ranging as the businesses they represent.  But, the one opinion that has become the most prevalent is that the office environment has changed forever. 

We know that remote work is not possible for businesses with physical requirements for manufacturing, research laboratories, service industries, transportation, security, regulatory, among a long list of others, where the physical requirements are non-negotiable.

It is also problematic for new hires and recent college graduates who not only need to be trained on the job and the process, but on the expectations of a professional work environment.  How do you substitute those informational and visual learning opportunities, such as observing a well-performing team or looking over your coworkers’ shoulder? Not all things can be replicated with Zoom or Slack.

Remote work will likely be punished for the escapades of those who lack professionalism and get caught on a beach, airplane, or golf course when they are supposed to be working on a critical project.  Of course, this punishment typically is how a few bad apples ruin a policy, when the vast majority spend 10 hours a day at the desk and miss lunch as the time blurs by.

There is one other constant that we must consider in creating or revoking a remote work policy.  The impact on business objectives.  As we know, for every decision, there is a resulting outcome of that decision. 

This is where we intersect with Smith Engineering.  We are not a financial behemoth like JPMC or a tech giant like Tesla or Apple where our opinion carries weight on the matter.  In our small world, our decision impacts our success as a business entity.

So why does Smith Engineering have an opinion?

Smith Engineering is a services business where our revenue, brand, and reputation are built upon the quality of resources we employ.  Our mission is to serve a very complex and niche market around complex centralized energy plants for chilled water, steam, hot water, and power for critical facilities. We serve pharmaceutical manufacturing, hospitals, universities, large complex commercial facilities, district energy plants, and data centers.  To define our niche even further, we solely focus on fixing problems, not by building something new, but by learning from the past to help us design for the future.

What this means is that the people we hire are the keys to our success.

Our goal is to hire what we call “Purple Squirrels.” They are the best, the brightest, and the most adaptable to learn our niche, to maintain our business growth, and we will accommodate a remote work policy to support that objective.

We have our own approach to a remote work policy. First and most paramount, our employees need to be able to meet the needs of our customers, either virtually or physically. Second, we want to give our employees as much flexibility as possible, but we also recognize the need to provide an environment for training and development which includes periodically working from one of our locations.

Even as we recruit for new team members, we have looked at candidates in dozens of states, as we care about quality more than we do location. We centrally hire for some geographic locations based on customer needs, but we still offer flexibility for the employee to decide if they work from home, from the office, or the customer site.

Today, we have one of our Lead Design Engineers working remotely for a month from Nepal so that he can spend time with his family.

There is no single company policy, no single answer to this problem we adapt our needs and the employee’s needs in a manner to create a winning solution for our customers.

We also care because we are an engineering firm that focuses on energy optimization. The trends and their impact on space utilization and air quality effects our customers’ environments.  The driver for reducing costs and improving efficiency is well beyond changing a light bulb, and these changes impact our customers.

Each business will have objectives that will influence its policies around remote work:

  • Though Apple is not against remote work, they struggle with allowing access to high proprietary and secret information from outside the company’s security boundaries
  • Banks may struggle with regulatory requirements or the need for high performance team dynamics
  • Manufacturing cannot be remote, so should the organization that supports them be remote?

There is not one right answer, the only thing we know is that for every decision we make, we are giving something up, so some of the questions we must ask are: How do those decisions impact our bottom line? Will our company be able to recruit the best candidates if we limit ourselves to geographic locations? What are we losing in not being able to recreate office culture and an environment of learning, by allowing employees to work from home?

These are some of the tough questions that will need to be answered by each company in weighing the benefits and drawbacks of remote work.  One of Smith Engineering’s values is to challenge the status quo, and we have chosen to challenge the status quo by not requiring one thing or another from our employees, but by being open to the changes being dictated by an evolving marketplace. Because in our line of work hiring the right person is essential and there is not a lot of room for error. We are required to be great at what we do.