Communication

Remote Work: All Or Nothing

Photo by Jack Tinney under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

I had an employer contact me about a remote job opportunity. I decided to chat with him. There were a few intriguing moments throughout the conversation, but one stood out in particular.

Early on in the call, this guy asked, “What made you take this phone call?”

I responded honestly, saying, “I am looking for more flexibility in my life to get the projects done I want to work on at the times I feel most motivated to work on those projects.”

It didn’t go over well. He referred to my response as, “raising a few red flags.”

I offered whatever the phone equivalent to raising your eyebrows is, and he explained by saying, “This is a full-time position we’re talking about.”

In my best Steven Avery impression, I said, “Yeah.”

I knew it was a full-time position. I was wondering why flexible and full-time seemed like antonyms in this case. After the call, I was able to put it all together.

This company has a few dozen employees and they “work remotely.” I thought all of us in the tech/startup world agreed on what that phrase (working remotely) meant.

I was wrong.

The few dozen employees, though remote, are all in the United States. I didn’t think much of that. It can make accounting trickier. No big deal.

I then came to learn that, although remote, the requirement is essentially that you work normal working hours, five days a week. Their goal is to overlap with one another as much as possible. And it sounded like they sat on video conference most of the time.

In other words, this guy took the archaic ideas of Henry Ford’s time and applied remote work to them. He doesn’t have a few dozen remote employees as much as he has a few dozen satellite locations.

He must have a reason for this, right?

His reasoning revolved around communication. If he has a question, why should he have to wait for a day for an answer? That’s a waste of time.

I’ve heard that one a lot – remote work makes communication difficult.

That’s backwards.

Instead, remote work requires that you be a good communicator.

I wrote an article recently on how emergencies tend to be self-inflicted. That applies here, too. If he has a question keeping him from doing work, why does he have that question? Or, another way to ask it is why doesn’t he have other work he can do in the meantime?

It all goes back to planning. Plan well and you decrease the number of unplanned events. Plan well and communication doesn’t need to happen in real-time. Plan well and everyone knows what they are supposed to do, so it doesn’t really matter when they do it, especially if they are measured by a set of goals, and not time.

Remote work can’t be approached halfway. You can’t half-ass it. Remote work with strict guidelines and without good communication or planning leads to a bunch of satellite offices working under the same principles of those people who hated happiness and created a five-day work week.

I’ve read about other companies that have gone halfway with remote work. They let some people do it and not others. Or they let you do it, but only one day a week. Or they let some departments do it.

I understand, it’s a big step. It’s more work for managers. It’s a different way of working. It requires a different way of measuring success. So small steps seem like progress.

And while I always say life is about balance, it doesn’t always work that way. You don’t step slowly into a cold lake. You don’t peel off a Band-Aid as slowly as you can. That’s not how those things work. You jump in and you rip it off. Remote work is the same way. You don’t create the efficiencies a little at a time.

Do it or don’t it.

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The Polymath Lab will be closing its doors in 2017. Many articles here will be moved to Sean's Medium account, which is the space in which he is currently writing.