In Defense of Remote Work

Help Your Company Find Its Why

The debate over remote working—what we used to call telecommuting—is endless. It’s also mostly misconceived. Pundits and consultants debate whether it’s a privilege or a right, whether it’s good or bad for productivity, good for morale or not.

The truth is that data and anecdote can be marshaled to support most positions on this issue. In part, this is because “work” is not one thing: building a car, writing code, answering customer-support calls, writing articles about workplace policy—these are all “work,” along with burger flipping, sales, marketing, and on and on.

But even among the types of white-collar jobs most associated with telecommuting, work is multifarious and the considerations about the best way to get it done are complex. Which brings us to the real heart of the remote-working matter: Do you trust your employees?

Send out the scapegoats

If you do, then the answer is straightforward: Trust them to know how best to do their jobs, including where to do them. If you don’t, then remote working isn’t the problem. It’s a scapegoat.

I don’t mean necessarily a scapegoat for underperformance, although it can be that. When IBM, one of the original trailblazers of the telecommute, announced last year that thousands of remote workers would have to start coming to the office, observers were quick to note that the company had seen 19 straight quarters of revenue declines.

Likewise, Marissa Mayer’s ill-fated attempt to turnaround Yahoo included a clamp-down on remote work. Of course, Mayer steered clear of blaming remote workers for Yahoo’s struggles, but she did suggest that employees who worked remotely were missing out. Her memo about the change explained: “Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.”

History does not record whether any of the affected employees yelped “Yahoo!” in response to the memo, but it’s safe to assume some number of those reactions ended with an exclamation point.

Tale of two companies

For some jobs with certain responsibilities, Mayer wasn’t wrong. But it’s equally certain that for others, forcing them to work where she wanted them to was a mistake.

There are two kinds of companies, according to Jean-Francois Zobrist, the long-serving CEO of the French foundry FAVI: “How” companies, and “Why” companies. The former believe in telling their employees how to do their jobs. They insist on standardized processes and procedures, top-down control, and power and information concentrated at the top. They usually tell their employees where to work too.

To varying degrees, this aptly describes most large corporations today. But there is another sort, what Zobrist calls “Why” companies. They focus on telling their employees why they’re doing what they’re doing and leave the “how” to the individual. FAVI’s factory floor reflected this. Every workstation was customized; machines were often arrayed at what appeared to be incongruous angles relative to each other, and no two places alike, or so it seemed.

In other words, each employee worked in the way that maximized their own productivity, and each was free to experiment to discover what that was. When I and my co-author of Freedom, Inc. visited FAVI while researching our book, we saw custom-fabricated parts racks and tools everywhere we looked.

And each employee could explain why this rack was tilted at this angle, why she made a special rake for gathering parts, and so on. They were creatively engaged in improving their own performance because they’d been given the freedom to do so, and knew they weren’t being measured by anything else.

There were no remote workers on that foundry floor, if only because it’s not easy to cast bronze in your home office. But remote work is best viewed as just one application of that same principle: That employees deserve the trust to organize their work life in the way that makes them most productive.

Do you trust your employees to decide to which group they belong? This is part of an even larger question: Do you trust your employees to decide for themselves how best to do their jobs?

Be a why company

Even from here, in my home office, I can hear the chorus of “Yes, buts…” and “If only it were that simple!” It is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Our book is a full-length examination of the challenges, pitfalls, and benefits of being a “why” company.

When I say remote working is a scapegoat, I mean it often gets the rap for a load of other problems. If you take away the “how,” for example, the “why” becomes extremely important, even essential. If your employees don’t have a clear mission, combined with a shared vision for what you are trying to accomplish together and how they contribute to that vision, they’ll be at a loss for what to do, or they’ll be doing the wrong things because they’re pursuing different goals.

But the problem, in that case, is not that they’re remote. People are just as good at goofing off, being disengaged and performing makework in an office as they are at home or in a Starbucks. Sometimes they’re even better at it at the office because they’re reacting against being “warehoused” for eight hours a day, or more.

The underlying problem is inadequate communication of the company’s “why,” and that employee’s role in pursuing it. Max De Pree, management philosopher and author of Leadership Is an Art, said it best: Communicate lavishly.

Talk to people about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it. Maybe check in on how they’re doing it, but be careful there. It’s all too easy to slip into that “how” mentality or to be perceived that way. Make sure employees know what they’re supposed to be doing, and why, and don’t just do so once a year in a formal performance review, but do it lavishly and as often as possible.

Be a why worker

It may well be that someone in a particular role needs to spend more time in the office. They have a team that hungers for “interactions and experiences” with them, or they’re missing something important about the group dynamic by being away. But if they understand their job, they’ll come to that conclusion on their own, like as not.

And if they don’t, forcing them into the office won’t help them “get the message.” It will probably just make them resentful and surly, which isn’t a great addition to any workplace.

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