How am I going to know my employees are really working? Won’t those in the office be jealous? What if I need an answer now? These are just some of the excuses that opponents of remote work advance as they resist what Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson argue is the most effective and promising way to manage people. Fried and Hansson should know: As co-founders of software company 37Signals, they have 36 partners spread around the world serving millions of users. In their new book, Remote, they clearly advance the advantages of a virtual workforce while forcefully responding to those who can’t let go of the traditional office.
Are They Really Working?
For many leaders and business owners afraid of remote work, the main objection is that workers will “slack off” if not supervised. According to the authors, this fear reveals a much bigger problem. Specifically, it reveals that the manager sees him- or herself as not much more than a babysitter — which does not portend well for the organization. To put it bluntly, if managers act like babysitters, employees will respond in kind, the authors write. “People have an amazing ability to live down to low expectations. If you run your ship with the conviction that everyone’s a slacker, your employees will put all their ingenuity into proving you right. If you view those who work under you as capable adults who will push themselves to excel even when you’re not breathing down their necks, they’ll delight you in return.”
In fact, as the authors argue in a later chapter, managing remote employees increases the focus of the employee’s performance on the actual work for which he or she is responsible. Performance measurement in traditional work environments can be diverted by factors that don’t involve the true productivity of the employee. Did the employee arrive at 9:00 or 9:30 a.m.? Is he wearing appropriate attire for the office? These are not the questions that managers of remote employees ask. Instead, they are focused on the employee’s work results: Did he finish the report on time? Is her sales team improving their closing ratios? Remote work doesn’t enable slacking off –– you can’t disguise lack of productivity; but it does refocus the manager’s attention on what’s important.
The authors aren’t starry-eyed zealots about remote work, nor are they academics examining the virtual workplace as a theoretical construct. They recognize the advantages and potential of remote work but also recognize that there can be some trade-offs. Sometimes it’s nice to talk to your manager in person or sit in a room with your colleagues brainstorming on the next big idea.
Discipline is a big commitment, more than you realize. And interruptions are going to happen — it’s hard to say no to your child showing you the “A” on his homework.
But with technology and the right management — for example, holding weekly virtual meetings where people can give an informal report on their week — the tradeoffs can be mitigated, and the full benefits of virtual work can be enjoyed by employees and organizations alike.
Of course, there will always be some bosses who steadfastly believe remote employees means total loss of control. In such cases, the employee looking for virtual work employment has but one choice: to look elsewhere. In the end, it’s the company that loses.