Why total bans on remote work don't remotely work

Two divergent trends force all employees into the office, or all employees to work remotely. It's time to stop the insanity.

Are remote workers more productive? Or are they just slacking off?

Three years ago, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer famously banned employees from working remotely. Earlier this year, IBM did the same thing, forcing remote workers to start showing up at the office.

The most popular justifications for such a policy are efficiency and collaboration — especially collaboration. The idea that employees from various groups should randomly encounter each other, brainstorm and collaborate is practically a Silicon Valley religion.

Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs was a major proponent of the collaborative work environment idea. Now that Apple's new Apple Park headquarters is nearing completion, press accounts are emerging about how the main "spaceship" building is designed to encourage chance employee encounters.

But the strongest embodiment of this idea is to be found in Facebook's HQ, which boasts the world's largest open-office workspace — a single room spanning eight acres. Something like 2,800 employees all work in the same open area, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The irony here shouldn't be lost on anyone. IBM is one of the major companies selling the infrastructure to enable secure remote work. And Facebook's entire company is built on the idea of cloud-based social interaction. Yet both companies apparently believe that getting computers and networks out of the way is the key to better communication.

Other companies, including Canonical, Mozilla and MySQL, go to the opposite extreme, requiring all or most employees to work remotely.

The best reason for insisting on remote work can be found in the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. The author's thesis is that corporate culture in particular and the wider culture in general is encouraging us all to be constantly interrupted and distracted, spending our working hours multi-tasking. Newport calls this mode "shallow work." He points out that multitasking is a myth, and that in fact interruptions shatter concentration, degrading the quality of work. "Deep work," on the other hand is something that's increasingly rare and valuable.

The pros and cons of remote work

On the pro side, advocates boast higher morale, more focused work, less interruption, time saved on commute, reduced turnover, lower overhead, more flexible hiring — all of which adds up to higher productivity for the company.

The perceived cons for remote work are increased employee isolation, professional marginalization, lower productivity from goofing off or doing home and family-related tasks during work hours, fewer opportunities for spontaneous collaboration -- all of which adds up to lower productivity for the company.

So which is it? Does allowing employees to work from home increase or decrease productivity?

This is a mission-critical question because remote work is definitely on the rise.

A recent Gallup survey found that in the four years from 2012 to 2016, the percentage of U.S. employees who worked remotely rose from 39% to 43%.

Dell found recently in an employee survey that 58% of its employees work remotely at least one day a week. Which surprised the company because only 17% were authorized to do so.

Other reports predict the percentages of employees working remotely full time by 2020. Citrix Systems, for example, forecasts that half the American workforce will be remote within three years.

The trend is clear. With each passing year, a greater percentage work takes place outside the office.

The truth about remote work

It's important to think clearly about this trend. It helps to divide employees not into two categories — office and remote — but three:

  • Full-time office worker
  • Part-time remote worker
  • Full-time remote worker

While much of the press and company edicts fixate on the first and third categories, it's the second that really demands attention.

The reason this is important is that planning, equipment, company culture and IT infrastructure for the second two categories are similar. They're also similar to other flexible work arrangements.

For example, the infrastructure to support both bring-your-own-device arrangements and flexible desk situations (where each day employees are assigned a different desk) are also similar to remote work deployments. They all involve increased mobility, increased leveraging of the cloud, flexible security and up-to-date communication tools, such as Slack-like systems and good mobile video conferencing.

Yet part-time remote workers are often treated like -- and provisioned as -- full-time office workers.

I believe that companies who suddenly force all employees to work in offices, or push them all to remote locations, are making a mistake. It's the kind of "power move" -- like mergers or divestment -- that ambitious CEOs like to make to demonstrate bold leadership.

The truth is that certain kinds of employees, certain kinds of work and certain kinds of companies demand in-office collaborative work, and other kinds favor remote, solitary work.

What Dell and others have learned is that employees, along with their managers, will self-select work modes depending on the circumstances. And they're in a better position to make these decisions than C-level executives.

To issue a top-down, blanket policy of everybody working from the office or everybody working from home is to interfere in an important decision that can usually be better made by managers, team leaders and employees. This "local" decision-making tends to lead to better decisions, as well as happier and more loyal employees who are more likely to do better work.

Three take-aways about remote work

What's needed in enterprises now is more sophisticated thinking about remote work. It's time to shed dogma and face three basic facts:

1. Flexibility is opportunity

The only right answer to the question of whether remote work is more or less productive is: It's complicated. Generally, the best option is the one that most professionals choose, which is occasional remote work. Sometimes it makes sense for all-hands-on-deck collaboration. Other times it's vital to have long stretches of uninterrupted, focused work time.

Office workers should have the flexibility to work remotely. And remote workers should have the flexibility to come into the office. Flexibility and right-sizing the work environment for the employee and task gives any company a tactical advantage.

2. Blanket policies impose inflexibility

Top-down edicts simply end this beneficial flexibility. It's true that some employees can't be trusted to work productively at home, or will lose opportunities to collaborate. (It's also true that some employees slack off and work alone even in an office.)

But employee changes of any kind can happen quickly. What takes time is the preparation to enable remote work. The solution to employee productivity and collaboration isn't edicts that tie everyone's hands.

Also: flexibility in hiring is becoming more important all the time. Sometimes the very best developers or other high-demand workers insist as part of their employment contract the ability to live where they want and work remotely. By banning remote work, you're effectively reducing your company's ability to flexibly hire the best people. You also may be losing future opportunities to place staff geographically closer to clients, partners, customers and industry events.

3. Enterprises need to assume remote work

Clinging to an old-fashioned fantasy that all work must be conducted in a central office puts companies at risk. We're now entering an era where a majority of the workforce works remotely at least part time. If your company pretends this isn't happening, you'll fail to develop relevant policies and build secure remote infrastructure. Without a solid company plan for remote work, employees will use their own, insecure solutions and methods around data and communication, to potentially disastrous effect.

The winning approach is not a blanket ban on remote or office work. It's crucial to plan for a future that assumes all, or nearly all, employees will work remotely at least part time. That's how you can benefit from the flexibility of enabling each department, manager, employee, project and task to determine where work takes place.

It's hard to know what technologies, trends and opportunities are coming in the next few years that will affect who in the company works where. The key is to maintain flexibility.

Because when you're ready for all your employees to work remotely, you're ready for anything.

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