Musings: On Why Remote Work Makes Sense

During the height of the pandemic, working from home became the new “normal” for workplace settings. Even companies that had previously not embraced remote working got on board – perhaps because it was the more palatable choice (as compared to shutting down offices or having workers not show up for work).  As someone who favors telecommuting, the arguments against it simply don’t hold water.

First, I want to clarify that for the purposes of this post, “employers” refers to remote work-resistant employers and the scope encompasses fields for which remote work’s appropriateness has been established (i.e., those roles that don’t require face-to-face contact). There is debate about whether creative fields like marketing, advertising, and product development require in-person collaboration; regardless, there are certainly some roles within even those fields that would lend themselves to remote work.

I’ve had the opportunity to work from home as well as having been responsible for supervising staff who worked from home full time or part time. Both of these perspectives inform my views of remote work. I’ve also commuted up to 5 hours a day, round trip, to a job in a large city – having been a “super commuter” also informs my views on the topic.

Let’s also acknowledge that “work-life balance” is a unicorn; really, a myth, in the current state of the working world. In the past, the concept placed the onus on employers to respect workers’ boundaries, such as vacation time, with the idea that doing so would increase the wellbeing of employees. Now, conversely, the onus has shifted to the employee to be responsible for somehow carving out some time away from work…even as that’s frowned upon by employers, who seem to expect that an exempt employee be accessible and responsive even when they should be asleep for the night or enjoying their tropical vacation. Other employees also engage in the “blurring” of boundaries, contacting co-workers with non-urgent work issues after standard work hours. So much for work-life balance…seems like a term of art, rather than a truly aspirational goal.

Here’s why I like remote work: no commute, so reduced carbon emissions (yeah, that really is important), stress from navigating what can be horrendously bad traffic (depending on where you live), less wear and tear on your vehicle, lower insurance rates because you’re no longer driving those distances. Further, for those workers who live in areas where it snows and their employers refuse to close the office, it removes the burden from the employee to have to decide whether to use vacation time rather than attempt to get to work in unsafe conditions. And the “use your discretion” [about if it’s safe to attempt to get to the office] is pure CYA: if conditions are unsafe enough that local government offices are closed, for example, that should be a strong enough basis for private employers to follow suit.

If you have sensitivities to environmental allergens or fragrances, you’re not exposed – even unintentionally – to them. Further, with remote working, you control your environment, so if you need it cooler, darker, warmer, brighter, quieter, etc., you’re able to customize it to your needs. You’re no longer breathing in whatever is coming through the office building HVAC system (and when you really look at the particles that land on your desk in an office setting, it’s disturbing), and all that office furniture, carpeting, etc., is no longer off gassing at you.

If you have specific dietary requirements, working at home is a relief – it’s exasperating to have to explain to someone ordering lunches for a meeting scheduled through the lunch hour that I don’t eat meat from fast food restaurants and that, no, a green salad is inadequate as a meal. Potlucks are awkward, too. Further, I like not having to watch other employees throw their recyclables in the trash after the lunch meeting. It’s too far to walk the 5 feet needed to put the item in the recycling bin, I guess.

If you have conditions that make accessing a restroom frequently necessary (I count myself lucky that I don’t, but I strongly prefer using my own bathroom, with my own non-antibacterial soap) or (ladies) you’re having your period, being able to access your own facilities, with your own hygienic products and privacy, makes dealing with an issue much less stressful and embarrassing. Dignity is certainly important to an individual’s wellbeing, or have we forgotten?

One of the arguments made by some employers is that they don’t know what employees are doing when they’re at home (and presumably, not video-monitored). I pose this rhetorical question: do you know what they’re doing when they’re in the office? I think not, based on what I’ve seen: employees spending copious amounts of time, literally hours, on the web shopping and doing other activities unrelated to their jobs, looking at various smartphone apps like Facebook (again for hours), having lengthy conversations about personal matters with co-workers…in other words, not being productive, even though they’re physically in the office. This isn’t even a employee problem, in my opinion – it’s a management issue.

As a manager of staff, including fully remote staff, I knew that I was responsible for setting expectations, ensuring that my direct reports understood those expectations, and having “difficult conversations” if there were failures to meet those expectations. If you’re lucky enough, as a people manager, to have mature, self-motivated staff that don’t require micromanagement, you’ll find that managing remote staff is as easy as managing on-site staff. If you don’t have that kind of staff, then it doesn’t really matter if they’re onsite of offsite – they’re still going to require more active, meaningful, monitoring. Let me be clear: the monitoring must be meaningful – simply requiring them to log into the company system at a certain time or even send project updates on a set schedule isn’t meaningful unless you, the manager, are analyzing what they’ve sent to you to confirm that it shows actual progress toward agreed-upon goals. If you can’t tell from the employee’s deliverables and/or updates that real work is going on and that the work is toward meeting expectations, what’s the point? It’s just make-work, and I’ve been at companies that confused make-work (and accompanying nonsensical metrics) with actual work. As a people manager, I care more about actual work than colorful graphics that don’t actually tell me how much progress has been made toward a goal.

To that point, quantifying work may be difficult, depending on the type of work that’s being done. Analytical work, for example, can be challenging to force into a metrics-based system. This is probably more suited to a binary (yes/no) evaluation, like “was the risk analysis performed by the due date and with acceptable quality?”

At the heart of the matter, the manager must understand the work being done by his or her staff in order to know whether or not an employee is actually doing his or her job. Yes, management of people is a discipline unto itself, but, at least in my experience, managers are often responsible for the work that’s being done by their staff and their own deliverables, too. If I don’t know how long it should take, generally speaking, to process a non-complex claim or to audit a process, then it’s going to be difficult for me to assess whether or not an employee is performing work at the expected pace. If I’ve never done the work, evaluating quality will also be difficult. In a remote environment, that kind of context is just as important as it is in an office environment, but not moreso.

I’ve spoken about the need to understand the work that’s being done by employees, but a critical piece is trusting them to be responsible, ethical people, too. I can understand a new manager, not knowing the team well yet, leaning a bit to the micro-manager side; once the team is familiar with expectations and is performing as expected, trust that it will continue should be established, thereby removing the need to monitor so closely. To be clear, I’m not saying that a manager should completely check out of what their staff are doing, but less-frequent and perhaps less-detailed progress reports or updates should be appropriate. Striking a balance between being aware of the status of projects and allowing competent staff to do their work without intrusive supervision is an important skill, and only learned through working with a team.

So what am I saying? In short, remote work should be embraced and treated like just another office location, without the connotations that have historically accompanied it, such as a remote worker is less ambitious, is just someone who wants to get paid to goof off, has poor people skills, etc. Highly competent individuals often desire the flexibility that remote work offers without sacrificing productivity, for a number of justifiable reasons (including those I’ve already described). Managing remote staff basically involves the same managerial skill set needed to manage onsite staff, hinging on a manager setting clear expectations, actually paying attention to what’s going on, and actively addressing issues that may arise.

As someone who has managed people, I don’t care if they do their work wearing pajamas or with their dog sitting next to them on the sofa. These were not customer-facing roles, so what does it matter how the employee was dressed or where they performed their job? Did they do high quality work? Yes. Was their productivity comparable to being in-office? Yes. Did other people even know they were a remote worker? Not unless someone looked up their work location in the company directory or was told.

Remote working can – and is – working. Let’s dispense with the antiquated idea that only employees working from a company office can be productive. We live in a highly technology-driven time, so why are so many employers hesitant to leverage technology for the wellbeing of employees, as well as the financial advantages (i.e., real estate cost savings and employee retention)? And why aren’t we making investments in the infrastructure needed to support high speed internet everywhere, not just in the populous cities?

…And here’s a thought-provoking article on how a shorter work week actually resulted in greater productivity for Icelandic workers.

Update 7/26/21: adding an article worth reading about how the flexibility remote work offers can improve wellbeing, including for workers with invisible disabilities.