My biggest beef with diversity in the workplace is that people say things they don’t mean. They do things for effect, because they think they should, or because they feel pressure to act and appear a certain way. But at the end of the day, if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, it’s not likely to work.
That’s certainly true for remote work, or telecommuting. I speak on this topic in the same breath as diversity because this workplace strategy requires diverse thinking, a way of operating that diverges from traditional norms.
I admit to some bias. I think working from home is a wonderful perk. It’s modern, it’s effective, in my opinion it’s necessary, but I understand that it’s also controversial. Still, the reason such policies don’t work is not because of productivity lags or inefficiency. It’s not even that people take miserable advantage of the benefit to slack on their work. Remote work policies fail because the leaders who create them don’t truly believe in the activity.
Instead, these leaders may quietly support a traditional workplace mentality around butts in seats equaling productivity. There, physically being in the office to make your presence known is necessary. They create and market remote work policies, however, because they want to be able to offer that perk to millennial and Gen Z talent who demand work-life flexibility.
But here’s the thing. Once the millennial, or whoever, is ensconced in their new role, the whole game changes. And that change is a nebulous and annoying one that seems unfair to those who may have signed on to an organization believing the culture is one way when the unwritten rules state that it’s very much another. It’s like being lied to.
That breach of trust creates a crooked, dotted, Family Circus-style line to retention issues and besmirched brand reputation, costs associated with recruiting and hiring, productivity lags, morale problems, and a litany of other negative talent management-related effects. Ultimately, it’s not worth it. And many companies have found that out and are pulling back on remote work policies. IBM, Yahoo, the list is long and storied, and I think it’s a mistake.
The benefits of remote work, our seemingly limitless technological access, the connected nature of global workplace, the increasingly small world in which we live and work, these things are true and undeniable. Savvy leaders and companies won’t allow the challenges associated with working from home – establishing a culture that supports this activity and then rooting out the bias this modern work strategy inspires – to prevent them from reaping the benefits.
I just read a piece from Kunal Kerai, “Why Work from Home Doesn’t Work? Culture and Cognitive Bias,” that sums things up well. The issue with remote work boils down to a disconnect between culture, expectations and formal policy information. Kerai offered a great example of how misaligned culture and policy can tank a remote work policy using details about Tesla and Airbnb.
Tesla’s cultural values center on moving fast, constantly innovating and promoting a “we are ALL IN” mentality. Employees who’ve discussed the company on Glassdoor report a lack of work-life balance.
Airbnb’s cultural values are around being a host, championing the mission “belong anywhere” and embracing the adventure. Kerai wrote that those things center on inclusion, belonging, exploration. The company has a fixed number of work from home days for employees, but on Glassdoor they seem to love it.
Tesla’s expressed need for speed and “we are all in” mantra directly conflict with telecommuting, which can slow down employee communication. “When a company decides to implement a work-from-home policy for its employees, it cannot clash with the culture, or else the company has designed a system to fail where employees cannot access the benefit without suffering,” Kerai wrote.
The bias bit is even more sketchy. Kerai wrote that according to psychology, “even when we’re exposed to something neutral or negative, we still develop a positive attitude of it.” Meaning, someone who is visible in the workplace has an advantage over a telecommuter. The advantage is often keenly felt when it comes to who receives promotions and developmental opportunities.
But that absence might not be such an issue – and that bias might not be so prevalent – if an organization’s culture fully supported telecommuting. Leaders should personally demonstrate its value, and that “proximity…the idea that the more physically, cognitively, or psychologically closer you are to your target person, the more you both like each other” is not a key factor in effective management.
That said, working from home is not suitable for every organization. Cultures where collaboration is a critical strategy, for example, may need to limit it, and draw some crystal clear lines in the sand. But if at all possible, it should still be an option.
The complex world we live in, the accelerated pace of business, the volume of work most companies demand from their employees, the benefits of remote work cannot be discounted just because its implementation presents challenges. It’s true that some employees will take advantage of the privilege, but that’s no excuse to take it away in a blanket move that punishes everyone for one individual’s mistake. I’ve seen that happen. It’s a shortsighted, lazy, knee jerk reaction to a problem, and please believe your talent will mark a big black x against you for it.
But if you’re clear about the policy, your culture supports that policy, and you’ve noodled out the related impact on other aspects of talent management like promotion, recognition, development, etc, and how to deal with it, do it.
Employees really like the option, even if it’s only available once in a while.