Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer stirred up quite a commotion earlier this year when she announced a the telecommuting policy that was heard around the world--as of June nobody at the Internet company could work from home. The rationale: Hallway conversations and impromptu team meetings foster innovation whereas remote working is slow and leads to lower quality work.
As someone who works from home, I bristled at the news. Some of the brightest, hardest working people I know rarely set foot in a company office.
It's no wonder, then, that I found myself underlining passages in the margins of "Remote: Office Not Required," a book coming out October 29 by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founders of Chicago-based 37signals, the company behind popular Web-based collaboration tools such as Basecamp, Highrise, and Campfire.
The authors' viewpoints are certainly biased--37signals' products are well-suited for remote workers who need to work on projects with others and stay in close touch with teammates. Even so, they clearly know what they're talking about and practice what they preach. The company's 36 employees are scattered around the world and only come together for companywide gatherings a few times a year. Fried and Hansson also are proponents of a 40-hour work week and don't care how employees distribute their hours on the clock or calendar.
The duo identifies the many benefits of such flexibility, such as the potential hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars a person can save by not having to commute. But what it really boils down to is that if done right remote workers have an opportunity to determine the quality of their own lives. Want to travel the world? Go for it--most people can work anywhere there's an Internet connection.
Remote work isn't without its drawbacks, such as the tendency for people to work too much from home, while at the same time getting less exercise than if they had to trudge into an office.
The book is chock full of tips for employees on how to succeed as a remote worker as well as surprising advice for managers about how to hire and retain the best talent. For example, 37signals admits to spending less than 30 seconds scanning a potential hire's application, honing in on the cover letter because of Fried's and Hansson's insistence that remote workers need to be excellent writers. Oh, and be forewarned, you'll want to work for 37signals when you learn about some of their crazy-generous perks.
Here are just a few of many excuses managers often give for keeping workers chained to an office desk, wrong as they may be.
Remote Working Hinders Communication
Fourteen years ago I was employed by a large company that let me work from home several times a week but at the time I felt insecure about the privilege. Were my co-workers jealous? I think so. Did they think I was slacking off? Probably.
But that was before instant messaging, Skype, and all the other tools we have at our disposal today. In fact, Fried and Hansson say a shared screen on WebEx and a voice connection are quite capable of capturing collective thought. They also point out that screencasting--where you record video and audio of what you're doing on your computer so that someone else can play it back later--is a fabulous way share a new feature you're working on, for example.
And while it may be difficult to imagine a world in which you can't just put your head into someone's cubicle and get an answer to a question right now, your ability to do so in an office setting is actually what makes the office suck--it's full of interruptions. For true emergencies remote workers can use the phone. All other queries can be handled on email or IM, depending on how long you can wait for an answer.
Other Employees Will Be Jealous
Think if you let one person work from home everyone else on your team will feel slighted?
Fried and Hansson surface so many benefits to remote working they wonder why a company wouldn't want to let everyone do it.
"Is the business we're talking about just an elaborate scheme to keep everyone in their assigned seats for a set number of hours? Or is it rather an organization of people getting work done? If it's the latter, why not let people work the way they prefer, and judge everyone on what--not where--work is completed," they write.
Remote Workers Will Slack Off
If you don't trust your employees enough to do their jobs when you can't see them, why do they work for you in the first place?
"If people really want to play video games or surf the Web all day, they're perfectly capable of doing so from their desks at the office," Fried and Hansson write, holding up J.C. Penney as a company in which 30 percent of the company's bandwidth was at one point eaten up by employees watching YouTube videos.
Their take: Responsible adults doing fulfilling work don't screw around.
But the insight that hit me the hardest is that remote working pushes actual work to the forefront when it comes to evaluating an employee. Office workers are often judged by petty things completely unrelated to the quality and quantity of the work they do, such as what time someone gets to and leaves work, the number of breaks they take or if a passerby happens to notice they've got Facebook open. Perceptions of worker value can also be colored by how easy an office worker is to get along with as opposed to how well he or she actually performs.
Fried and Hansson list dozens of companies of all shapes and sizes allowing their employees to work remotely. They point out:
In health insurance, Fortune 100 provider Aetna has nearly half of its 35,000 U.S. employees working from home. In accounting, Deloitte, which has about the same number of employees, has a staggering 86 percent working remotely at least 20 percent of the time. At Intel, 82 percent of their people regularly work remotely.
They also hold up Virgin Group founder Richard Branson as someone who's got the right mindset about remote work.
"In 30 years' time, as technology moves forward even further, people are going to look back and wonder why offices ever existed," reads the epigraph quoting Branson in the last chapter of the book.
Want more help figuring out how to succeed as a remote worker? Check out Get More Done: 18 Tips for Telecommuters.