Why companies that ban remote work hurt only themselves

Enterprises overwhelmingly seem to prefer employees to be in the same office, but why? New tools for collaboration and development make distributed work the norm, not the exception.

Remote worker, telecommuter, home office

kimberrywood, Getty Images/iStockphoto

I’m always bemused by companies with policies against remote workers. Such companies, determined to cling to the 18th century, chatter on about the efficiencies gained in having employees proximate to each other…even as those same employees communicate with their colleagues in the cubicle next door via Slack. Sure, whiteboarding sessions happen “in real life,” just as pointless meetings proliferate when employees share the same office.

In short, it may be true that distributed workforces won’t work for every company, but it’s almost certain that these same companies already accommodate distributed workforce practices.

All together now

The anti-remote work brigade was perhaps made famous by then Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s injunction to show up at headquarters or find a new job. Two years later, many employees seem to have missed the memo and continued working from home.

IBM, long friendly to remote work, started reeling in its workforce in 2017, centering on six major offices. “Move or leave” was the policy, similar to Yahoo’s. It’s unclear whether IBM’s policy has had more success than Yahoo’s.

SEE: Telecommuting policy (Tech Pro Research)

More recently, I’ve talked with people at a variety of companies that are trying to hold tight to their policies against remote employees, even as they struggle to hire in their preferred markets. One major tech company told me, “We’re finding it harder to build…teams [at our headquarters],” loosening prohibitions against remote workers.

And yet the default for “live here, work here” remains for so many companies. Why? Companies with such policies seem to believe that there are significant advantages to face time. Presumably the closer employees were to each other, the better they can collaborate.

Which, frankly, seems a bit silly given how much collaboration is done over email and Slack.

Your mileage may vary

Blair Reeves starts to pick apart the problems with the “remote doesn’t work” arguments:

A thing you see sometimes is VCs or managers in PM, Marketing or the C-suite hand-waving about how “remote just doesn’t work,” while right down the hall, the Engineering dept is working with [individual contributors] from three continents to get a release out on schedule. When this happens, it tells you a lot about how integrated (or not) these teams are with one another, and about who’s actually focused on getting the job done.

“Remote doesn’t work” is also just a really weird thing to say! It’s like saying “Agile doesn’t work.” It’s nonsense. Remote (like Agile) has been used successfully in lots of places for a long time. It’s not always the right choice everywhere, sure. But it definitely “works.”

My own experience, after 15 years working remotely and the last five years in the office, is that I’m dramatically more productive when not in the office. The office is nice for my social life, but a poor tonic for getting work done. Of course, a big part of my job as a manager is to spend time talking with folks, but given that only a small percentage of my team works in the same office as I do, most of my team interaction is over video conferencing, Slack, or email. The fact that they send those Slack messages from an office is completely, ridiculously irrelevant.

SEE: Working from home: Success tips for telecommuters (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Indeed, whatever your company policies, I’d hazard a guess that much of the real collaboration within the company happens online, whether through text-based media like email or through video conferencing. In a company of reasonable size, it’s unlikely that every employee is going to be in the same office, necessitating “remote” collaboration even if the company policy is against remote workers. IBM, for example, may be calling all employees “home” to six primary centers, but for any given meeting IBM may be stitching together employees from all six different offices. Is something lost if one more home office is included?

More ironically still, the engineering at nearly all of these companies increasingly happens with tools built by companies that are remote by default. GitHub, GitLab, HashiCorp, etc. are all companies that focus on streamlining a development team’s workflow, and each of these companies features a highly distributed workforce. Indeed, their tooling is, in part, designed to make location irrelevant.

It’s time to abandon the “must be here” workplace fetish. All it does is complicate hiring without significantly improving employee collaboration.

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