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The True Challenge of Managing Remote Workers: People Who Work Too Hard

Most managers fear that offsite workers will slack off. But that's precisely the wrong the thing to worry about.

“Freedom is slavery,” wrote George Orwell in the novel "1984." Let’s completely misappropriate that iconic banner and apply it to what happens to remote work if you don’t manage the work-life balance correctly. That can happen, because when you’re set free from punching in at 9 and out at 5, it’s easy to don the shackles of working around the clock. 

It starts innocently enough. You wake up by opening your laptop in bed and answering a few work emails from the previous night. Then, you make yourself a sandwich and work through lunch. After dinner, you feel the need to check in with Jeremy on the West Coast about that one thing. Before you know it, you’ve stretched your workday from 7 to 9. 

That’s the great irony of allowing passionate people to work from home. A manager’s natural instinct is to worry that her workers aren't getting enough work done. But the real threat is that they will wind up working too hard. And because the manager isn’t sitting across from her worker anymore, she can’t look in the person’s eyes and see burnout.

That's why managers need to establish a culture of reasonably expectations. At 37signals, that means that we expect people to work no more of 40 hours a week, on average.

There are no hero awards for putting in more than that. Sure, every now and then there’s the need for a short sprint. But most of the time, the company views what it does as a marathon. It’s crucial for everyone to pace themselves.

One way to help set a heathy boundary is to encourage employees to think in terms of a "a good day's work." Look at your progress at the end of the day and ask yourself: "Have I done a good day's work?"

Answering that question is liberating. Often, if the answer is an easy “yes,” you can stop working feeling satisfied that something important got accomplished, if not entirely “done.” And should the answer be “no,” you can treat it as an off-day and explore the Five Whys (the practice of asking why to a problem five times in a row to find the root cause).

It feels good to be productive. If yesterday was a good day’s work, chances are you’ll stay on a roll. And if you can stay on a roll, everything else will probably take care of itself--including not working from the moment you get up in the morning until you nod off to sleep.

Reprinted from the book Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.  Copyright 2013 by 37Signals, LLC. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. For more information, go to http://37signals.com/remote/

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