As kids, we go to school five days per week. We are trained from a young age that work is something that happens at a specific location. Sure, there’s homework and an occasional field trip, but the overall education experience takes place at school.
This is training for a future that is also location dependent. After graduating from college, I never considered the idea of remote work. I expected I would wake up and go to the office eight-ish hours per day until I am 65 or so. But I was lucky to have a boss that let us work from home one day every week in my first office job. That experience opened my eyes to the broken system of forcing everyone to work the same way five days per week.
Many industries have always relied on remote work
The office job is a relatively modern invention in the scheme of human history. However, going to a fixed location for work is nothing new. Blacksmiths are an example of a long-time occupation that required working at the same location each day. But there have always been jobs that required remote work. Messengers, the early version of today’s postal workers, could not do their job in one location. As technology improved over the centuries, some jobs still require working outside of an office.
The flight attendant I’m looking at as I write this can’t work from one location. The truck drivers and train conductors on the ground 40,000 feet below me work in motion. Even many service jobs, like exterminators, plumbers, and home care workers need to move from location to location to do their job.
So why do companies regularly restrict their workers to offices and fixed locations when their jobs do not require it? We have been working remotely for thousands of years! Why end that now?
Some benefits of a central office
While this article is clearly aimed at espousing the benefits of remote work, there are some benefits of an office environment. Offices are great for some workers, which is why they rose to prominence in the first place.
At the office, you have face-to-face interaction with colleagues. This type of interaction improves creativity and communication. Offices also give insecure and power hungry bosses the power to stand over their domain and watch the cogs in their machine chug along producing TPS reports and other office age necessities.
But do those benefits, and pandering to bosses who care more about butt-in-chair time than productivity, outweigh the benefits of remote work? No way.
Remote work enforces meritocracies
If you have ever spent time working in an office, or any place where you see the same co-workers on a near-daily basis, you have inevitably run into office politics. Some people get promotions because they are buddies with the boss. Others get a leg up from making their early morning and late nights public knowledge. But these systems empower mediocrity while penalizing quality work.
In the salaried office environment, one many millions of people rely on for their livelihood, sharing an interest in the same football team may mean more for your future bonus than turning in consistent, on-time, high-quality work. I have seen this clearly at one past employer, and to a lesser extent at most offices.
This type of favoritism is human nature. We want to be with people like ourselves, and bosses may find themselves unintentionally rewarding work that isn’t the most effective. I don’t fault bosses for this, the problem lies in the system.
If you don’t see, or care, how many hours an employee works, you can reward those who objectively do the best job. Whether the worker is in the office, a home office, an airplane, or across the world, they can likely do just as good a job. In fact, some studies show that workers with flexible schedules and work locations are more creative and perform better than the typical office worker.
Some people need structure, but we don’t all need an office
Of course, general statements like these are what led to the modern office. Everyone has their own unique work preferences and strengths. Some workers thrive in an office, and some take advantage of a loose system.
Former Silicon Valley starlet Yahoo! went along with the general trend in tech to allow more flexibility in work schedules and locations. This, along with many other challenges, was part of Yahoo’s fall from greatness.
At the time she was appointed CEO, Marissa Meyer ended Yahoo’s popular remote work program. She cited statistics that many remote workers rarely logged into the VPN, which means they were rarely working. Yahoo’s remote work options were so flexible many Yahooers took advantage. This doesn’t mean every remote worker was cheating the system, but there were enough bad eggs to force a change.
Other large companies have jumped on the same bandwagon, with companies like IBM ending longstanding remote and work-from-home options. But forcing everyone into a one-size-fits-all work environment is a recipe for corporate waste.
Embrace unique styles and needs
Picking up a copy of Inc. or Fast Company, you will regularly find articles about the pros and cons of remote work. However, these articles always take an absolutist approach. In reality, few workers perform best when forced to work the same as everyone else. Rather than offer two great options, corporate standards force everyone to a middle ground.
I learned early in my experiments with remote work that I do my best work right when I wake up. By the time I eat breakfast, commute, boot up, check email, and actually start work in the office, I have lost my most productive energy of the day.
Now that I’m self-employed and can work any way I want, I regularly roll out of bed before 6:00am and complete high-quality, valuable projects before my wife and daughter wake up, and before the lights turn on at the houses on my street and the offices they will soon make their way to.
However, 22-year-old me did his best work in the late afternoon and early evening. I would be in zombie mode when I arrived at the office and hit my groove around 3:00pm, often doing my best work in the time leading up to 6:00pm, a time when many co-workers had already taken off for the day.
If my own preferences have changed dramatically over the last decade, implying that everyone does peak performance between 8:00am and 5:00pm Monday thru Friday is an asinine assumption. It’s time to let workers do their best work, which often means working from a remote location or a flex schedule.
Discover and embrace unique work styles
Clearly no two workers should be forced into the same work style. While you can’t force your employer to start letting you work from Mexican beaches or the South of France, you may be able to swing a day or two from a home office.
You may not convince your boss to give you a European work schedule with shorter work days and a month-long holiday every summer, you may be able to convince them to accept four-tens or a flexible schedule.
Convincing your boss of this isn’t just a benefit for your schedule, it can benefit the company. If you do better work, it trickles down to the bottom line. Remote work options are a clear win-win for employers and employees. If your boss, or you, think remote work is a ridiculous pipedream, think again. Remote work is here and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Companies should jump on the bandwagon before they lose their most productive workers to companies that allow them to work and thrive, from home or anywhere else.