Maximizing Value and Minimizing Risk with Remote Workers

11/30/12Follow @drmime

For me, being able to work remotely is one of the greatest gifts of the information age. It allowed me to help raise my daughters in the ’80s and ’90s, live almost four hours from a major airport, and now I’m able to visit my granddaughters in Chicago at the drop of a hat, all while scarcely missing a beat at work.

But while remote working succeeds more often than not, there are, nonetheless, many ways it can partly or wholly fail. After witnessing many such failures while working from home successfully for fully 100,000 years (ok, 32 in decimal), I have a few thoughts about ensuring that working from home is a net benefit for both the company and the employee.

Remote Work

It’s important to understand the range of possible work-at-home arrangements. Today, nearly every company will at least allow some employees to work from home for a few days due to natural disasters, illness, or other exceptional conditions. On the other extreme, most companies have not yet experienced the joy of an employee working from the wilderness. That’s obviously more likely to cause problems and warrants much more careful consideration.

In between those two extremes is plenty of middle ground that companies can use as perks to attract good people. Some companies allow everyone to work from home on Wednesdays; others allow people in certain job functions to work from home two or three days per week—the permutations are endless. Sometimes, it works out wonderfully. Other times, not so much. I believe that thoughtful management can ensure that the latter situation is rare enough to be far outweighed by the benefits of the success stories.

Proximate Problems

When you ask people about the hardest part of managing remote employees, you’ll usually hear terms such as “communication,” “team cohesion,” and “bonding.” These are all important concerns, but I think they are secondary problems to the deepest one: trust.

A manager has to trust an employee to do his job reasonably well, and an employee has to trust his manager to treat him fairly and ethically. Two employees need to trust each other to collaborate and help each other get their jobs done. Without such trust, team cohesion is dead in the cradle and communication becomes an exercise in subtle codes and analysis.

I cannot give a recipe for establishing trust between two people. However, I have observed that it is much more likely if the two people spend some time—preferably very early in their relationship—working together closely, ideally in the same room. A modicum of trust is a prerequisite to solving any of the other problems, and the creation of such trust, more than most work tasks, seems to require physical presence.

All Jobs are Not Created Equal

Obviously, there are some jobs that require physical presence and can’t be done remotely. Less obvious is the fact that, within a typical office and enterprise environment, the roles and employees span a wide range of suitability for remote work. I believe the most important factor, once roles with physical duties in the workplace have been eliminated, is age—or, more accurately, career seniority.

The rationale for this is not complicated. If you hire a new employee fresh out of college, you’re unlikely to be starting with a great deal of trust, and keeping the young employee in the office is pretty much a necessity while you gauge their performance.

The further along an employee is in their career—at your company or elsewhere—the more flexibility the employee should have earned. Perhaps the new hire fresh out of college spends a year or two in the office and produces a stellar deliverable. Along with a raise, you might reward him with a day per week working from home, if he wants it. From there, it’s natural to reward several years of productive work in this manner with another day of work from home, and so on. But be warned: new problems arise as the fraction of time in the office decreases. In particular, the employee needs to take responsibility for maintaining good relationships when personal contact becomes rare.

It’s Worth the Effort

By making your company friendly to home workers, you gain a recruiting advantage. In the end, you get better quality of work, and the employee gets a better quality of life. It’s a win-win, but that doesn’t mean it’s effortless.

Working at home actually opens up some more radical options, as well. Some day, I expect to see some forward-looking company set up a major R&D center in a surprising, inexpensive location, such as the affordable and rebounding city of Detroit, and to couple that bold move with an aggressive embrace of working from home.

Overall, working from home is still, in the larger picture, a very new thing. We’ve only scratched the surface of how remote working will change our world.

Nathaniel Borenstein is chief scientist at e-mail management firm Mimecast. Based in Michigan, he is the co-creator of the MIME e-mail standard and previously co-founded First Virtual Holdings and NetPOS. Follow @drmime

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