It's tough to find a business publication that doesn't provide advice on how to approach remote work. The Wall Street Journal asks, "Is Hybrid Work Killing Remote Summer?" Forbes makes suggestions on "Travel and Remote Working--Marrying the New Ways Of Working." From Fortune: "Remote workers spend over an hour proving they're really working: survey." The Harvard Business Review tells us, "Remote Work Should Be (Mostly) Asynchronous." And Inc. offers, "Airbnb's New Remote Work Policy Is Only 105 Words. Here's What Your Company Can Learn From It."

As an Inc. contributor, I'm a bit biased--I happen to think theirs gives the best practical advice, surmising that the Airbnb work policy gives employees more autonomy. Others speak to a managerial perspective on various pros and cons. In Fortune's article, the author notes Elon Musk's remote policy: "Elon Musk says remote workers are just pretending to work. Turns out he's (sort of) right." We disagree, but that's beside the point. 

In fact, all these articles are a bit beside the point. Because for each individual employee, the situation is different, as is the job. A single mother whose child care provider canceled last-minute doesn't have a lot of leeway--and one who simply can't find affordable child care has even less. A surgeon can't work remotely. Anyone who just tested positive for Covid can't meet in person.

To be sure, companies need employees to be focused on the fundamental purpose: serving customers profitably. But often this does not depend on where the work is done. It depends on the work being done efficiently. Companies who rely on remote work policies that are concerned with where inevitably underserve customers, or impose unrealistic ideals on their employees. Or both.

But what if companies partner with their employees to serve customers--what we call economic engagement? Without partnership, a company busies itself with telling employees what to do, how to do it, and where to do it. No wonder companies that are in the top quartile of economic engagement have double the profit growth of their peers, as our research has shown in the Inc. article, "A Key Strategy to Double Your Profitable Growth."

At One Week Bath, an independent bathroom remodeling company in Southern California, (full disclosure: I own 30 percent of the company), we focus solely on what needs to be done to serve our customers profitably. We learned from the pandemic that many jobs don't require time in the office. In response, we scaled down our office space and cost, enabling our employees to avoid twice-a-day Los Angeles rush hours and improving their quality of life. We also learned from the pandemic to meet every challenge with the same two principles:

  1. Take care of yourself as best you can, with masking, vaccination, and caution.
  2. Take care of customers as best you can, as efficiently and profitably as possible.

That's it. We reinforce the practice of partnership with our employees by openly and weekly discussing the company's financial results. We listen to employees' ideas on how to drive those results. We forecast those results together. And when the company succeeds, our incentive plan ensures that every employee shares in that profit. 

Some companies talk about employee engagement. We have economic engagement, and the best team in the industry. And those two basic principles? They allowed us to respond to our customers so well that our repeat and referral revenue soared through the worst of 2020-2021. And we did it without any layoffs and virtually no turnover.

So what's our stance on remote work? It's the same two principles, nothing more. Everything else is at the discretion of the employees. Some work, like receiving and staging product for upcoming jobs, is truly hands-on. Krystal and her warehouse team physically go in every day. Others prefer to work remotely and can, like Bonnie and her team in finance and administration. Sales and design were already doing plenty of remote work. The crews were too, just like Southwest pilots.

Some suggest employees need to be in the same room to build culture. But partnering with your employees, instead of treating them like hired hands, tends to align people in profound ways. SWA boasts a legendary culture, with many of their members remote for decades. Or take our weekly meeting at OWB. Finishing jobs on time has been a challenge. A few weeks ago, crew leader Rudy announced he was wrapping up his job a day early, and the team erupted in spontaneous applause. Rachel said, "What you don't realize is that Rudy's project was the first sale I ever made, and that customer is really demanding. But I just got off the phone with him, and he's just raving about Rudy and his team." Applause gave way to all-out cheering.

Some might say we're leaving inmates to run the facility. But we don't have a facility. We have a business where every employee has a direct stake in the profits. We don't have a remote work policy. In fact, we have very few policies. We have smart people who we trust to make decisions, all aimed at serving our customers profitably. Sometimes a new decision improves our services to a customer. Sometimes it doesn't. But we allow our team the room to continually learn and improve.

This also means Matt (our president and majority owner) and I spend a lot less time on administrative matters and much more on making the business better. It seems to be working. Two years ago, we were at eight crews. Today we have 14--not to mention a record backlog, frequent referrals, and a robust remote operation. If you need policies, direct them toward serving customers profitably. Leave the rest to a well-motivated team; just make sure you're motivating them.