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Making Remote Work Work

Remote work can benefit employer and employee if you do it right.

Source: Pxhere, Public Domain
Source: Pxhere, Public Domain

Whether you call it telecommuting or remote work, it would seem to be a slam-dunk idea. Workers avoid painful commutes, can work in their comfies, and there’s no fire-breathing boss looking over their shoulders to be sure they didn’t dare email their honey or check the March Madness bracket. Employers benefit by needing less office space; they can recruit to find the best workers even if far-flung rather than just locally. And employers can attract and retain better employees who are in-demand enough to avoid jobs requiring an ever longer, stressful commute, after which employees arrive at work half-exhausted before they even start work.

Employer worries

Yet most employers still demand butts in the office. Why?

Of course, employers worry that “work” days at home will be too liberally laced with sleeping late, stopping early, and in between, too many breaks for chatting, baby, doggie, soaps, long lunches or nooners, yoga class, or hanging out with their kid after school. An answer resides, not in onerous hourly reporting, but mainly in moderate monitoring and hiring people who can be trusted to work solo and who write well enough to do much communication by email or IM. Plus, the ever-better collaboration software, such as Trello, Asana, and Monday, enable teams to work more effectively and, yes, for managers to monitor individuals’ performance.

Employers also worry that remote workforces don’t engender a productive work culture: There’s no sharing of ideas and questions to the person in the next cube or bonding in the break room. Sure, you can bond electronically, but for many employees, it ain’t the same.

Another boss worry is simply when remote work is not standard at that organization: If the boss tries it, and productivity declines, the boss could get axed—safer to be conventional. The answer may lie in trying it as a low-risk experiment: Start with a one-day trial with your most reliable employee who’d like to work remotely. After that day, if all seems copacetic, extend the trial to a week.

All’s good? Try a second employee. Only when you have defensible trial results does the risk/reward ratio justify broadly expanding the remote option (or requirement?): for example, allowing everyone to work remotely one day a week, at least for starters.

Employee objections

Many employees find the office nicer than home—because their place is dingier, or there are noisy roommates or children. Plus, the employee may get treated with more respect in the workplace. The answer lies in the aforementioned: If the home’s no good, there’s always Starbucks, hotel lobbies, libraries, co-working spaces such as WeWork, even an empty desk at a friend’s workplace.

Other employees like the office’s social aspect: chatting in the break room and, OK, between breaks. That’s often particularly pleasant because you all share the common bond of working for the same employer. That said, you don’t have much choice of co-workers—That annoying cube-mate could be pretty much unavoidable. Work at home or at the aforementioned places, and you can reach out to friends and family and can simulate at least some of the office social life with software such as Sococo .

Still, other employees worry that if they’re out of sight, they’ll be out of mind when it comes time for plum assignments and promotions. That can at least be partially mitigated by strategically reaching out electronically, for example, with Skype, text, email, and even old-school telephone. Of course, bosses can schedule meetings to occur on Google Hangout, Zoom, or Skype. Plus, there’s a cool new option called Beam , which enables you to move around rather than sit planted at your desk. Remember, sitting is the new smoking.

Still, other workers do worry they’ll goof off too much. It can help to have an accountability partner, perhaps a friend or co-worker or a stranger found on an accountability-partner website. You’d check in every hour for each of you to report on what you did the last hour and what you plan to do in the next.

The takeaway

Every innovation has up- and downsides, risks, and rewards, but based on the anecdotal experience reported by my clients, this review of the literature , and the reports and ideas for success described in the new book, Work Together Anywhere: A Handbook on Working Remotely, Successfully, for Individuals, Teams, and Managers , it seems clear that more workplaces would be wise to experiment with remote work.

Yesterday, I interviewed that book’s author, Lisette Sutherland, on my radio program . In addition, her website contains a wealth of additional resources to help make remote work.