Some of the best work I’ve done in my current role, I’ve done at the Blue Bottle coffee shop. They serve one of my favorite coffee brews, the service is always friendly, and there’s always a general buzz of excitement from the other patrons who, like me, are furiously banging on their laptops or scribbling down notes on their latest project. It’s noisy, crowded, and smells heavily of twenty different types of caffeine. Some people might be hard-pressed to get any work done there, but for me, it’s a perfect fit.
Working remotely is a growing trend. Go to a coffee shop, walk through a park, or take a few sales calls and you’ll find an increasing number of people who are “working from home today.” And why not? Wouldn’t you rather work on spreadsheets on a blanket in the park, or fix that bug in your code while you knock out some long-neglected chores? It’s a no-brainer. Chances are that most of us, if given the opportunity, would leap at the chance to work remotely.
And many companies realize this. Flexibility to work remotely is an incredible incentive to attract and retain talent, and not just because “it’s more fun.” For many employees the option to avoid lengthy commutes, not have to pay for child-care, and to be closer to their families throughout the day can be life-changing. So then why doesn’t every company offer the ability to work remotely?
Well, depending on which company you ask, you may get a different answer. But at the root of most opposition to remote working is trust. And it’s an understandable issue. For managers, what they want to know is “how am I supposed to manage someone who isn’t here?” Particularly in managing early career employees, there is often a very large trust gap between managers and their employees. And the trust divide is a bit more complex than you might initially think.
First and foremost, when you take an employee out of the office, how do you make sure they aren’t watching TV and ignoring the tasks at hand? But beyond that first, basic layer of trust there are other hurdles to managing remote workers that stem more from experience and development concerns. As a manager, if Samantha is not in the office very much and my only communication with her is through email or over the phone, am I going to be able to coach her as effectively on what I need done as someone who is sitting just a few desks down from me? What about if there’s an urgent need from a client and Jack took his dog for a walk and I can’t reach him?
These are reasonable concerns. However in reality, I would argue that they are not concerns with remote working, but accountability concerns.
The first myth to debunk is that working in a company office is more productive and more free of distractions than remote working. The truth is, I can be just as distracted in my office as I can be at home. I can access ESPN, Facebook, and my Gmail account just as easily at work as I can from home. And, as much as I hate to admit it, when I’m in the office I will peruse the internet when I hit a brick wall or there’s a lull in my call schedule. Bottom-line: if you want to check-out, you’ll find a way to check out.
However, when I work remotely I am more easily able to put my nose to the grindstone for two hours, then take my dog for long walk to clear my head, then put in another two hours fresh, stop for lunch, etc. And I find I will actually work longer days on days I am not in the office than days I’m in the office.
But as a manager, it can be difficult to extend that level of accountability to someone you don’t have tabs on, particularly if they do not yet have the established credibility and industry skills of a veteran employee. There are countless studies of millennials’ lower attention spans and the unorthodox and risky practices of multitasking. And I’m sure there are hundreds of stories from managers of remote employees who don’t meet expectations or are frequently late on deadlines. It’s not a system that works for everyone. Miscommunication can create mistakes, delays, and, worst of all, loss of revenue. Those are all bad outcomes and they are risky enough gambles to understand why a lot of managers are still skeptical of their employees working remotely.
And, truthfully, there are some fields that do not lend themselves to remote flexibility. If you have to make immediate trading decisions or handle large client investments, it’s probably better to do that in the immediate range of support in case a problem should arise. But my point is that regardless of where the work takes place, managers should always be striving to establish a level of trust and fluid communication between themselves and their teams where they can focus on the result and not have to worry so much about the process. If that trust exists, then working remotely becomes a non-issue. If that trust does not exist, then that’s a bigger internal issue.
And one of the best ways to establish trust between managers and employees is to foster a culture of accountability rather than one of micromanagement. Netflix has recently evolved into one of the corporate standard for accountability cultures. At Netflix, you work where you want, and take as much time off as you want, you just have to get your work done. It seems like such a simple concept, because it is. Extend trust, hold your people accountable, and you’ll get the best product. At Netflix, their management style is to promote a culture of self-enforcement with the expectation that you will consistently meet their high-standards. And if that’s not the case, Netflix protects itself with routine performance reviews and will politely part ways with employees who do not meet their high standards.
That model may not fit within every job function, but it’s a prime example of a company valuing their employees’ results more so than their process. In today’s market, if you can turn out a high-quality project on-time while being responsive to questions, calls, and emails, it doesn’t matter if you’re at the office or in a noisy coffee shop. And in the continuous drive to innovate that so many companies are now facing, the companies that invest in trusting their employees and promoting self-regulation are the ones that will be able to draw-in and make use of top talent.
What are the policies at your company around working remotely? Do you think they are too lenient or too strict? Head back to Base Camp to join in the conversation!