In a pre-pandemic world, remote work was often reserved for “high performers.” After all, a level of trust was necessary for an employee to self-manage. The pandemic was essentially a great experiment: 71% of adults whose jobs could be done from home found themselves doing just that beginning in March of 2020. Now, more than a year and a half later, has this shifted perceptions about remote work and productivity?
In 2010, I was working for a company where I was one of three remote employees. Everyone else was located in the office in Topeka, Kansas. I’d relocated to Kansas upon accepting the job four years earlier but had been granted the remote accommodation to return to my home state of Wisconsin while my husband finished college. The other two remote employees had similar stories, where life circumstances were going to force them to relocate and they were allowed to work remotely rather than lose the employee.
I worked hard to prove my value as a remote employee, knowing that I had been offered something not available to everyone. Yet in August of 2010, an announcement was made: all employees were being given the option to work remotely. Most of the employees in Kansas opted to leave the office and work from home instead.
At first, I was miffed. I felt that the right to work remotely had to be earned. Some of the employees were far from stellar. How could they be trusted to get their jobs done? And how dare they be given the same privileges that I felt I had worked hard to deserve over the years?
I was wrong to feel that way.
Because work—overall—is not about the location. It’s about results, regardless of where those results take place.
Flip the script on tying performance to the office
“But what if the employees get distracted at home and don’t perform as well?”
What if employees get distracted at the office and don’t perform as well?
Almost every argument against allowing all employees to work remotely can be stated in the reverse. Sure, some employees may struggle with the freedom that remote work allows. But others may perform better working remotely than they would in an office. After all, there are fewer distractions and the option to choose the time of day in which the employee works best (if flexibility is also part of remote work).
My real-world example of working for a company that moved from in-office to remote work illustrates that performance isn’t tied to location. One employee was fired. The person had been sub-par in the office and remote work didn’t change that. When the focus was only on results and not physical presence, it became even more obvious. And since the company was no longer limited by geography, hiring a replacement meant a much larger candidate pool.
The onus is really on the employer to ensure that results are clear and openly communicate with employees who are missing the mark. And if performance is an issue, then that should be discussed with the employee and problem-solve ways to improve, just like if that employee had performance issues in the office.
Work shouldn’t be about control
“But if my employees are in the office, I can see what they’re doing.”
When I was managing a remote team, being a babysitter wasn’t in my job description. I was fairly frank with any new employees I hired that I would not be checking in on them during the day. Nor did they need to let me know if they ran out to do an errand or pick up a kid from an after-school practice.
Managers that believe that work can only be done under their watchful eyes are admitting that they have no trust in their employees.
Requiring office presence when the job can just as easily be done remotely is about control. It’s about forcing employees to put the company above any of their own needs. It’s about demanding the attention of the employee during the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. (plus a commute).
The future of work is about work-life integration: allowing the freedom for employees to flex between work and personal lives as they see fit.
An office only guarantees presence. Not productivity.
Remote work shouldn’t be a “perk”
This is the one that I personally struggled with when my company at the time first went all-remote. Now, as a remote work advocate, I realize how misguided I was.
I didn’t “deserve” remote work for being a good employee. My reward came in the form of raises and promotions.
Tying flexible work to performance inherently leaves some people behind; those for whom traditional hours are a barrier. There is probably no larger case study for this than women, where it has been documented over and over that mothers, in particular, are routinely seen as “not working as hard” because they leave the office “on time” instead of staying late, or have to leave in the middle of the day to take a child to the pediatrician.
Workplace equity means allowing all employees the freedom to work in a way where can maximize their own productivity and work-life balance. Not just the high performers. Otherwise, remote work becomes another high bar, forcing employees to prove their worthiness through dedication (hours? presence?) first.
Remote work will become table stakes
The results from the pandemic are clear. Study after study found that people are more productive working from home. Harvard Business Review reports that employees spend less time in meetings and more time with customers and external partners. Knowledge workers also report seeing their work as less tiresome and more “worthwhile.”
Companies that don’t offer some type of flexible work options will be seen as out of touch. The pool of talent knows what their options are—and remote work means that they aren’t limited by geography in their job searches.