Summary: This post focuses on the logic of employers requiring employees to be in the office in instances where the employee doesn’t work with any people in that office. The employees are asked to trade remote work in one environment (home) to go to work in an employer’s office. In either case, there is no one to physically collaborate with. Employers have a hard time making the argument against remote work in this situation.
Last month I blogged about the current state of remote work and how many employees want to work remotely while many employers like Elon Musk want employees back in the office.
Something that I didn’t mention in that post is that employers have set up a situation where they have to allow remote work. They can’t make an argument against it. Conversely, employees have a pretty strong argument for remote work.
Let me explain.
I Don’t Work with Anyone Here
I had lunch with a colleague of mine from a major fast-food company headquartered in Chicago. He told me he is back to working in the office two days a week. This means he commutes on the train 50 minutes each way, twice a day.
Interestingly, he doesn’t work with anyone at his company headquarters. He is responsible for a team that is distributed around the globe and he is the only member from the US.
Sure he might bump into a colleague at the coffee machine (they do have free coffee). Or he might overhear a conversation that adds to his knowledge. But it won’t be about his current team or initiative. It won’t be those osmotic communications that Alistair Cockburn described in his excellent book.
What is the point of going in to work at the company’s office if you don’t interact with anyone there? You may as well stay home.
Team Staffing Decisions that Impact Remote Work
The root of this issue is the decision to staff a team with people from around the globe. The thinking goes like this – “The work is important. Let’s get our best people on it.”
Then you pull together that winning team with people from all over the globe. Never mind that the team rarely ever works together. Instead, they are all doing their part remotely. In some cases, half of the team is asleep while the other half works.
The argument for staffing a team like this is that we have just the right people on the team. There is also the factor that we can staff the team with lower-cost people that live outside the United States. That is a Human Resources and staffing policy that is probably similar to what you have at your company.
There are Better Ways to Staff Teams
One of the first agile coaches I ever worked with was Alex Deborin. I recall a conversation with Alex from back in 2010 about forming agile teams. We were ramping up a program of 8 agile teams with representatives from around the globe. I remember talking about how we planned to align the teams by functionality and expertise. We didn’t consider co-location as a factor.
Alex wisely recommended that we build teams that could be co-located. In other words, try to create whole agile teams capable of end-to-end delivery based on where people were sitting. Rather than having the “perfect” mix of people, distributed around the globe, it would be better to create teams that can be co-located and work together. We could use cross-training to bridge the skill gap.
You see Alex knew that the location of team members and the ability to communicate quickly and richly was more important than having a distributed team with all the right skills.
Most employers today don’t think like Alex. They ignored location when staffing their teams. Instead, they staff teams based on keeping everyone busy or lowering the cost of people. They treated the team location and distribution as if it doesn’t matter.
Perhaps those organizations believe that modern communication tools will bridge the gap. Location does matter and tools don’t help, as the Allen Curve showed in my previous post on this topic.
No Argument Against Remote Work
By ignoring location, companies have created a situation like that of my lunch buddy. They really can’t make the argument against remote work. Why should people show up at the office if they don’t work with the people in that office?
Love this ! Thank you for saying this
This is very true. I work with a team that sits on both coasts. Recently, we were asked to come into the office once a month. My team mate recently went in and she was the only one there. She did all her team meetings by zoom… in the office. What’s the point of that?
This is my experience as well, and when I ask my department head about it the answer I get is just “find a way to make it meaningful!!!” But why? And how is it fair to put it on the employees to figure out how to somehow make meaning out of a teleconference in a cubicle instead of my home office? It feels like bosses are grasping at straws to justify the existence of the office at all.
There are so many reasons why remote work should keep going. We live in a new world, a new norm. People want to change. We want to experience life more. If big companies who make millions of dollars. All employees want is quality of life. With saving hours of travel. This opens up so many possibilities. I lived in pilsen which is really not far from the loop it took me exactly 55 mins from door to work seat. Now it takes me less than 1 min. That’s a huge saving in time. I get to enjoy lunch. I can accomplish so much being home. I understand other careers can’t do what we do and sure that is not fair to them but they can always fine a remote job. Unless you love what you do and even me being at a remote job I’d go into work if I loved what I did. I keep seeing articles saying remote work is over soon. I’m sorry but if my job told me I had to go back to work I’d search for a permanent remote job. People’s lives have changed in the past 2 years. I have moved, got new animals, a car, a whole new life in 2 years. They say oh working together but when I was at work we were not “working together” I was sitting near people and we would talk and socialize but we wouldn’t work together. We did have meetings but those could easily be done through teams. Tech has evolved, us humans are evolving. Also making us go back to work and paying for travel during where prices are extremely high only makes morale drop. Employees won’t be happy and people will just leave and find happiness somewhere else. We just want quality of life and working from home gives us at least somewhat that. Sure we still need to make money and pay bills which even that on its own sucks that we all have to surround ourselves with money.
Although I agree with the concept of remote work, this article is a rambling incoherent mess. I’ve read it three times attempting to identify anything other than your anecdotal evidence to support your thesis and have found nothing. Then I realized this is just a pointless blog and moved on.
Hi David, thanks for your honesty! Surprised that you had to read it three times though…
Companies that hire employees globally already knew it would be a work from home thing. It’s the rest of them that need their employees in the offices, factories, restaurants, clinics…
Nope. They do not:
“employers have set up a situation where they have to allow remote work.”
Your perspective is flawed.
They can, if they wish, require EVERYONE to come in, if they so choose.
Your framing is not intellectually honest.
The science doesn’t matter. The performance stats do not matter.
Words mean things.
Reality is real.
It is, what it is.
This is the kind of argument that people managers make to justify their role as a babysitter.
If a company hires individual contributors that can function effectively without someone micromanaging them, then they don’t need everyone sitting in a cubicle farm with someone watching over them, timing their breaks, making sure they show up on time, and don’t take a long lunch.
Show me a company that can’t let its knowledge workers work remotely and I’ll show you a company that doesn’t know how to hire quality employees.
I’ll keep my employer secret but I work on a whole team of knowledge workers and we all work in the office every day. Our company has very few openings because people leave very infrequently.
For scope, we are a 300 person privately only company with 100s of millions in revenue.
I don’t think there was any mention of what employers can or cannot do. They can, as we all know, do whatever they want to do. The message was around the logic of requiring office presence in instances where you’re essentially leaving one environment with no one to physically collaborate to work in a different environment with no one to physically collaborate with. That’s just stupid.
You’re right. The science doesn’t matter. The performance stats do not matter.
Reality is real.
It is what it is.
Hi Intentional, thanks for that short summary of the post – I wish I had been as succinct! I am going to add it to the top of the post as a summary.
Unfortunately the only reason i can think of is the same terrible 1 with a lot of things in life. To remind you they’re in charge, not you.
It’s important to remember that some jobs are aligned well for remote work, but not all jobs. Your article presents the belief that all jobs should be remote, which isn’t true. Creative jobs such as engineering lose individual work individual work efficiency when working remotely, where other jobs, like software development can range from significant increases to significant losses depending on the home environment available to the developer. Remote work efficiency and productivity numbers are also highly self-reported right now, which means there’s a high potential for bias. It’s possible that the office environment may need to change, rather than destroying the social fabric of society by generalizing your remote work statements to everyone. There’s so much more to the story that you aren’t taking into account. Be careful what you preach.
Remote work makes most employees lazy, it’s just human nature, if people can slack off they will. The power has been in the hands of the employees over the last couple of years with all the surplus of money in the economy and a labour shortage but, once the recession kicks in those people not willing to come into the office will probably be let go as companies cut costs.
It’s amazing how quickly people come so entitled
Hi Jack, do you really think that ‘remote work makes most employees lazy’? Sure some people knock off at Noon to walk the dog or exercise, but I know just as many who have found that the work expanded and they are on Zoom calls all day. The time they saved commuting to the office has been translated into more working hours and people are ‘on’ all the time.
‘Lazy employees’ sounds like Theory X thinking. This management style assumes that the typical worker has little ambition, avoids responsibility, and is individual-goal oriented. In general, Theory X style managers believe their employees are less intelligent, lazier, and work solely for a sustainable income.
Learn more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_X_and_Theory_Y
I’m a senior manager at a global company and not one person in my organization of 250 works from an office. My teams provides a wide variety of business process services from contact center to software product development and I have noticed no negative impact on quality or productivity and often times significant positive results. I treat people like adults and hold them accountable to their performance. If they want to take the dog for a walk or get up and stroll around the house while talking to a customer it doesn’t bother me because it makes them happier employees and happy employees make for happy customers.
The benefits of WFH in terms of employee happiness, reduced commuting, reduced office space, less demanding corporate infrastructure and so on far outweigh the negatives. Leaders need to adapt and overcome the challenges and find ways to keep their teams engaged but that doesn’t mean returning to the office.
Or, how quickly some employers will ditch underutilized office space to save on costs, or maybe both. We need to wait and see.
I agree with John, companies do not have to allow remote work.
They don’t need the explain why they want you back in the office. If your boss wants you in the office, then you make the decision to go back to the office or leave your job. And remember, not everyone likes to WFH.
Jane, I agree that companies don’t have to allow remote work, or explain why they might want it. And yes there are some people who prefer to go to an office to work rather than WFH.
But I think there are many more who prefer to work remotely. And those companies who have previously allowed remote work during COVID and that have set up an environment where going in to the office is just symbolic and not productive are the ones who don’t have a leg to stand on.
In case you didn’t click through to my previous article, I want to point out that while I personally prefer WFH, I think that people should work closely with the members of their team. My recommendation is to organize teams who can work together, preferably in the same room.
Thanks for taking the time to comment!
Plus much lower risk of lawsuits due to sexual harassment, inappropriate comments, workplace violence and much lower risk of your employees being badly hurt during the commute.
Excellent points Stephen!
So dumb, one sided, and lack of honesty.
??? Vic ???
Spot on, I am a senior level executive and made a decision to allow an employee to work remotely. I received tremendous pushback from the higher ups but stood my ground. This person’s production has improved 15% and I find emails and reports delivered in the wee hours of the morning. Keep remote work ALIVE!
Why do we forget that you are being paid to meet criteria.
If that criteria is “do job x in location x” then go do job x in that locations. This is how you earn a paycheck.
Companies don’t care who you interact with. They want to ensure thier investment in you is producing output. Sometimes it’s a matter of trust, sometimes it’s a matter of leadership and sometimes it’s just how you need to follow the rules in order to get paid.
If you disagree then follow your dreams to another employer otherwise drive to work and do your job.
It’s not about arguing. Take it or leave it. Simple.
Adam, you are 100% correct that employers set the rules. When I was in high school I worked at a convenience store whose owner would often tell us workers to “do it or quit”. And one day I did quit. Isn’t that what the great resignation is all about?
I’m not sure why people’s desire to waste time and energy to commute, as well as taking a break to unwind would be considered “entitlement “, rather I look at it as a desire to be more happy and/or being more clear headed. If someone thinks that a person who has just been through rush hour traffic can just sit down at his desk and fire away on all “cylinders “ instantly… is dreaming. Getting a coffee from the break room, checking missed emails/ calls while commuting etc. We as a country have been working more hours and yet less productive than other industrialized nations. The office model has never been used solely for its efficiency. Coming into a workplace, sitting behind a counter or at a desk has been around for well over 100+ years. Clocking in and out is a concept that hasn’t evolved much over a century. Yet, modern communications and computer processing has evolved exponentially. The iphone has literally placed a “computer” in our pockets. Video conferencing is literally instantaneous and free. Doctors are literally taking patients from their couches. Just because you spend 8+ hours in the office, doesn’t mean you worked 8+ hours. Time wasted, is time wasted. Many people around the world seem to “work to live, instead of live to work”. Corporate decisions are usually done by top brass…who in turn get paid way more than they actually contribute to the operation of a particular company. When a CEO asks for millions in compensation, they always say that they are worth it. Yet when a company tanks, they still get a “golden parachute “ Average worker’s pay has not risen to compensate for inflation for decades. If working from home allows workers a chance for some more “me time”, then are they not worth it. In modern times, the one thing we as a society lacks the most is time it self. Working from home is not “perfect”, but if the average worker prefers it, and it is possible, then “evolve” with the times.
The only downside I see to remote work is challenges in training/mentoring new employees.
I am a manager at an HVAC company so we have a lot of experience with our employees working remotely.
I do have to have apprentices work with senior mechanics for years to prep them for independent work schedules, I cannot speak from experience but having a space that allows for training feels important.
To address this concern we have rotated office staff to semi remote work schedules that allow trainees to be mentored by multiple senior staff members.
It does have the disadvantage for the new employee not being able to work from home (at least in the short term) while allowing the senior staff to experience a better work life balamce.