Whatever it’s called—remote working, telecommuting, working-at-home, home office—the idea of not working in the office every day seems to no longer be the soup du jour in the workplace. Notable large companies are bringing their employees back into the office. Some, like Apple, have created very nice places to work. But why the change? The most recent excuse appears to be the need for close proximity of teams in order to improve productivity.
Really? Wasn’t that the primary reason for remote-working in the first place — to improve productivity? It even spawned a whole new software industry for remote collaboration.
So, what happened? Is it too distracting to work at home? Did collaboration software fail? I believe the failure of remote working is due to three fundamental issues.
One is an inherent lack of trust. Trust is hard when you must to see to believe. Those who manage by noting activity will be very uncomfortable when it is impossible to see. I suggest that if your job as manager includes making sure everyone in your team is working (or appears to be), then you have the wrong team or wrong management training.
Another basic issue is autonomy. Most companies view remote working as creating an office workspace at home, so they try to manage the team as they would at the office, except now the cubicles are much farther apart.
Instead of looking at the home office as an extension of the workplace, it may be better to view it as a separate office with its own culture, character, design and rules.
In other words, treat the remote worker as if they are managing a new office location for the company. We do this at Warren Lamb. Some work out of their homes, some out of their sheds, some gather frequently at Barnes & Noble café, Starbucks, or DoubleTree, and some desire a leased office space with tables, chairs, and coffee in order to meet more regularly and leave stuff there. Each “remote office” is its own viable place of work.
The third issue is how productivity is measured. Many years ago, I remember that IBM’s OS used to count the number of “lines of code” that a programmer would enter. I seem to recall 20 being the magic number of lines. One time I saw the source code in one OS include poems, letters, and jokes inserted in the programs. Funny, they were all 20 line sonnets. Productivity measured by activity is a carry-over from assembly line management. However, if you hire trustworthy, diligent, smart people that enjoy their work, then productivity is a given. I don’t measure how busy they are, which—I contend—is misleading anyway, especially for creative people. I measure softly—how “creative” the solution for a problem, getting it done in the time required, how much they seem to enjoy the work.
I grant you that finding these people is not easy, and the projects may suffer in the meantime. But, in the end, compromising trustworthiness and diligence to meet hiring quotas or needs creates more and longer lasting suffering for the manager, team, and company.
Published Nov 28, 2017