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Does ‘Remote Work’ Work?

When I joined Actionable at the beginning of this year I had never worked remotely, aside from the odd day over the years when I worked from home to spare my colleagues from a particularly vicious cold. I’d worked in organizations with remote workers, and had handled plenty of HR challenges and questions related to those arrangements, but I’d never experienced it first hand. Joining a fully remote, distributed organization was daunting: it meant that I needed to figure out how to work remotely for myself, while also understanding the particular needs of a remote and distributed team.

I’ve learned a lot over the last several months (and I’m still learning) about the challenges and benefits of remote work and collaboration. Over the same period there have been established, high-profile organizations calling back their remote workforces. As Yahoo, and then IBM, made the decision to change long-term virtual arrangements for large numbers of their employees, I began to see articles and blogs pop up opining that the end of virtual work was nigh.

The binary thinking (remote work is either the way of the future, or it’s a failed experiment) underlying most of these short pieces is not that different from the one most organizations apply to the issue. Office work is like this…and remote work is different. Harder, more complex, not worth it.

I respectfully disagree. After over a decade in conventional offices, and then getting thrown in the deep end of remote working, I’ll acknowledge that it does have it’s unique challenges. But these challenges are well worth the benefits to the team and organization (even if we ignore the benefits to the individual entirely). To put it bluntly, I believe that many teams and organizations who struggle to make remote work work do so because they are layering remote work onto an outdated and ineffective mindset towards managing people in the workplace.

The Spectrum of Remote Work 

Remote work is different, but not as different as most of us think it is. While we tend to think of remote and co-located work as binaries, it’s far more accurate to think about remote work on a spectrum. Actionable’s entirely remote and distributed workforce (none of us are co-located, and we’re in 8 time zones)is at the far end of that spectrum, but people who work in an office with their team and boss down the hall (or over the cubicle wall) aren’t located at the other end. Rather, the vast majority of us who have worked in a conventional office environment did so while collaborating with teams, colleagues, vendors, and customers who were not physically located at our office, or worked out of the office at least part of the time. We collaborated with, or provided service to, people who we could not see in front us by using the phone, instant message tools, video conferencing equipment, e-mail, or even faxes (ugh). When we did these things, did we ever stop and say to ourselves:

“Okay, now I need to use my remote work collaboration skills!”?

I hope not, but hey, whatever gets you through the day. My point is that ‘remote work’ isn’t such a mysterious, altered state of working after all. Most of us are hopefully aware that when an e-mail thread starts turning into a ‘reply all’ snowball of doom that we pick up the phone…that’s a remote work skill! So is recognizing that some communications aren’t well suited for e-mail or instant message, and arranging for an alternative.

When we take a more realistic view of remote work, we can begin to see that many people can likely work this way given the right support and endorsement from their organizations and leaders, and that remote work need not be an all or nothing proposition. This is not to say that there aren’t challenges specific to remote work. There are, but these can be mitigated, designed for, and managed in the same way we try to address the challenges of working together in the same location.

It’s All About Mindset

So why does remote work at scale prove challenging for so many teams and organizations?  One word: mindset. I think that remote work magnifies problematic management philosophies and people practices. In organizations where there is a lack of trust, sub-optimal communications, unclear definition of work outcomes and organizational priorities, or dysfunctional collaboration, remote work can amplify existing issues and become the stressor that causes that system to break down.

Managers and organizations that (consciously or unconsciously) subscribe to the belief that workers can’t be trusted, will avoid work if given the chance, and are to be given information and context on a ‘need to know basis’ only are unlikely to succeed at introducing remote work. If they try and fail, they may well decide that remote work doesn’t work. A more accurate assessment might be that their co-located team has succeeded to date in spite of their existing approach to management.

Take the far too common objection to remote work: “How will we know if people are working?” How indeed? I trust that I don’t need to belabour the point that people who look like they are working might be shoe shopping, or playing solitaire, or typing “I am a productivity ninja” over and over in Comic Sans? Okay, good; then let’s consider another angle: if a manager is measuring their team members’ performance based on how busy they seem, is that a concern? If a manager and their team are not clear on the outputs and results that will determine whether they are effective in their job, how does being in an office help make that more clear? Define outputs and results, and look at those, not how productive someone appears to be.

The concern that remote work prevents us from monitoring people’s activity misses the point by about 800 miles. The question itself is evidence that the organization asking it is failing at defining the objectives, priorities and results required from its members. I would argue that this failing is a far bigger risk to organizational effectiveness than the possibility a remote worker might decide to take a walk (or even a nap) once in a while.

HR’s Role in Remote Work

I know plenty of HR people who are trying to shift the thinking in their organizations about remote work. Like I did, they sit in interviews with great candidates who are looking for more flexibility, and can’t justify wasting 3 hours of their life commuting every day. They may also know that (despite the headlines), there is considerable research that remote workers are more productive than their in-office counter-parts (anecdotal evidence alert: I am).

On the other hand, there are still far too many Human Resources practitioners who jump to the challenges that remote work presents to compliance. “But how can we make sure that people are following Health and Safety laws?” I don’t mean to suggest that compliance isn’t important; it’s something we are accountable for. And yet, I’ve observed an alarming lack of curiosity about the organizational benefits of remote work from the HR profession. How did we get to a point where our first instinct is to think of how inconvenient it will be for us to have to explore an alternate way of working?

Trust Above All

When I joined Actionable I mined my colleagues for their tips and lessons, and read absolutely everything I could find about remote work. Although not as prominent in the news, there are quite a few organizations doing remote work well, and they are thankfully very generous with their accrued knowledge (Buffer, Automattic, ZapierZapier among others). I wanted to understand how we could maintain and scale the great remote team we had, and what I should be thinking about as I developed our recruitment and team member onboarding programs. I’m confident that we’ll continue to experiment and perfect our approach, but it’s clear that we’ve figured out some key pieces of working as an entirely virtual team.

However, there are no practices, tips, hacks that can overcome an outdated and mistrustful mindset. I am reminded again and again by my amazing colleagues that a foundation of trust, and a decision to assume positive intent (unless there is evidence to the contrary) is critical to making remote work work. That’s not just my own experience talking, the evidence backs it up.

For more on this, and a look at how we’ve designed people processes and practices for a remote environment at Actionable, come to my session at HRPA 2018: World Class Virtual Teamwork

For my team members’ perspectives on the challenges and joys of being part of Actionable’s remote team, check out our awesome team blog.

Read This Week:

Depending on the media you consume, you may or may not have read (or read about) the 10 page “manifesto” penned by a male Google engineer that made the rounds at that company this week. The document, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’, sets out the author’s position that gender gaps in software engineering groups at Google are due to inherent psychological differences between men and women, and its diversity programs should be discontinued.

There have been a number of excellent responses, reactions, and analyses, but if you have 5 minutes the one to read is this one from Yonatan Zunger, who until very recently was a principal engineer at Google:

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to.”

“All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering.”

“Not all ideas are the same, and not all conversations about ideas even have basic legitimacy.”

If you haven’t actually read the manifesto, I strongly recommend you read that also. I make this recommendation because it’s important to see with your own eyes that the person that wrote this is not a basement-dwelling loonie; he’s an educated person working for one of the most admired companies in the world. This should make us more curious about what is going on in our own organizations, below the surface.

Image credit: Antoine Beauvillain via Unsplash.com

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Spot on.

    August 16, 2017

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