Although I’ve been working remotely on-and-off for a few years now, it was just over 6 months ago that I traded a (admittedly comfortable) 9-5 job for the roller coaster ride of full-time remote self-employment.
The concept of remote work always made sense to me, and I never really understood why more businesses didn’t offer remote working opportunities to their employees. After a few years working in the field, I can only really think of two possible reasons why businesses don’t include remote work options.
The first reason is that it’s new and a little bit scary compared to the “old” way of doing things (for now let’s ignore the fact that the “old way” isn’t really that old at all). I can understand that some businesses (especially more traditional ones) may be a little apprehensive in taking the leap and hiring workers “off in the ether.” I hope that by reading this post, decision makers in these kinds of businesses will see that remote work really is an employment relationship that can offer a great number of benefits to employers as well as employees.
The second reason is much less benign, and a symptom of fundamental problems in the way certain businesses relate to their employees. I’ll cover it briefly at the end of this post.
With that said, here are what I see as the realities of work in the 21st century and why remote work is the way forward.
People Are Different
This is a truism, but often ignored when considering working schedules: people are not all the same. We have different attention spans, different interests, different personalities and different working styles. It follows that 9:00AM to 5:00PM may not be the period within which all of your employees can do their best work. Why then would you force them to work these hours?
It’s common knowledge through anecdotes and now also scientifically proven that some people work best early in the morning, and others late at night. By reducing the hours that your employees can work to a small window throughout the day you may be preventing them from producing the best results possible for your business.
Your Employees May Already Be Remote Workers
Another important consideration is that your employees may already be adopting remote working practices without reaping the benefits of location independence. If most of your work is conducted via email, telephone instant messaging and/or cloud-based Software as a Service applications (BaseCamp, GitHub, Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365, etc.), you’re already 90% of the way towards having a remote workforce.
As a real world example, I’ve worked at more than one company where it was considered not only normal but common courtesy to email or instant message a coworker instead of interrupting them, even when they were sitting in the same room as me. If your business already operates with very little dependence on the physical location of your employees, ask yourself this: what exactly are you gaining by forcing your employees to sit in the same room for 8+ hours a day 5 days a week?
Offices: “Lunch Lines” for Adults
An interesting aspect of human psychology is that when people treat us well and express positive expectations for our performance, we often rise to the challenge. We don’t like to disappoint them.
This also works in the negative case. If you treat adults like children, they’ll rarely disappoint you.
And this is the problem with forcing grown adults to work in an office solely for the purposes of surveillance. If you impose the belief that employees need to be “watched” in order to perform, their behaviour will reflect this. This is why adults who seem normal and level-headed in other situations can become involved in petty workplace incidents.
Meetings, Phone calls, and other Unimportant Things
Some employers argue that it isn’t feasible to have employees in different locations, as they won’t be able to effectively collaborate. I strongly disagree with this point. I believe that teleconferencing, screen-sharing and cloud-based document storage provide a near perfect replacement for in-person collaboration.
In addition to allowing for effective collaboration, remote work discourages ineffective kinds of collaboration that occur rampantly in an office environment. Ineffective forms of collaboration are those that interrupt an employee unnecessarily.
Ineffective collaboration includes physically interrupting a working to ask a question, interrupting them via a phone call or staging an “impromptu” meetings. If you’ve worked in an office environment, you know about this kind of meeting: it often doesn’t have an agenda, usually runs over the planned time period and rarely results in actionable outcomes or decisions.
These kinds of distractions are toxic, because they break the flow state that is critical to producing consistent and effective results as a knowledge worker.
Working in an Office is Expensive
Rent, utilities, insurance, equipment. All of these are required for a physical office, and all of them cost money. Rent is especially prohibitive as a business owner – and unlikely to get cheaper for most business owners.
Remote work and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) schemes can eliminate these unnecessary overheads.
Scalable Work Force
Once you have your remote work technologies and procedures in place, adding a new employee is as easy as finding a contractor with the right skill-set, creating some accounts and letting them loose on your internal operating procedure documents. Because you don’t care where your employees are based, you’re not required to hire only within the cities you have physical offices. This increases the pool of talent you can hire from significantly.
It also presents you with some interesting opportunities in terms of how you manage human resources within your business. Need additional customer service representatives over the Christmas period? Simply scale up by adding temporary contractors to your payroll over that period for a couple of months, scaling them back when they’re no longer needed.
Responsibility, Autonomy and Purpose
These are the three things that keep your employees engaged, productive and happy at work, and these are the things you can provide via remote work arrangements.
Notice that supervision, micromanagement and the threat of punishment (either implicit or explicit) are not included on this list.
In closing, I’d like to mention what I see as the other reason some businesses aren’t willing to provide remote work arrangements.
Some employers don’t trust their employees. They don’t see the employer to employee relationship as being a mutually beneficial engagement between peers of equal standing. They see it as a relationship between a superior and a subservient; a parent to child, or slave-master to slave relationship.
I don’t think I need to explain why this perspective is detrimental to both employee and employer. All I can say is that if you’re currently in this kind of relationship with an employer at the moment, you should seriously consider whether you’re willing to give your best to an institution that doesn’t identify you as a capable, responsible adult.
If you’d like to find out more about remote work, the benefits it provides and strategies on how to effectively implement it, I suggest you check out 37signal’s new book, Remote.