Can Remote Workers Be Trusted?

Lo Kidd

April 01, 2020

I was terrified the first time I asked my manager to work from home. I couldn’t tell you why. I mean, Trainual has a remote work policy that we are encouraged to use, and before Trainual, I worked exclusively remote. 

Still, I was terrified, waiting for the right moment to ask, even prepping my argument for why I should. Something like after working exclusively remote for my entire career up until this point, the only remedy for a case of procrastination is an espresso-tonic, head down in a busy coffee shop, and a pair of expensive noise-canceling headphones. 

I think on some level, I felt like I needed to justify wanting to work remotely, like being in the office somehow made me inherently more trustworthy and productive. Admittedly, this was ironic, given that I had been sitting at my computer for hours but had little to show for it. 

When I finally asked, frustrated at the amount accomplished, it was lunch. 

There were no questions asked, no need for explanation. Of course, you can work from a coffee shop if that’s where you’ll get your best work done. 

Even anticipating this answer, I was shocked. On some level, I prepared for the answer to be the exceptional “no” because I was still new. Now, I recognize that Trainual would not have hired me if I could not be trusted to work one afternoon remotely, new or not. 

But my fear was not entirely unjustified. At many organizations, remote workers, even for extenuating circumstances, are rare (only about 3.4% of the population) because employers don’t trust their remote workers. And here’s why (according to a veteran remote worker): 

The canned response why

“You just can’t replace face-to-face… We’ll lose the ability to audit productivity… Remote workers will take advantage of the arrangement…” and so on.

 Remote Workers Joke

Yes, I’ve heard the plethora of excuses, pre-prepared and ready to serve whenever an employee asks to work from home (even for just a day). Yes, I’ve read the highly publicized horror stories of telecommuting gone horribly, horribly wrong. And yes, I know big-name companies (a-hem IBM and Yahoo) have reversed their work from home policies, deeming the experiment as failures. 

But why are these pieces of evidence the reasoning for why remote workers can’t be trusted? Where is the research to prove remote workers are actually less productive or taking advantage of the situation? 

For each of these claims, there is equal evidence supporting why remote work offers an advantage to businesses, with supporting success stories from prominent brands. (Ever heard of Microsoft, Amazon, Dell, or Hilton?)

Look at it just from a productivity standpoint!

Speaking from my own experience, even now that most coffee shops have closed, I am typically more productive working remotely. And I am not alone in that sentiment. 

A survey with 38 thousand workers found that workplace distractions, including colleague interruptions and uncontrollable noise levels, were detrimental to productivity.  And another survey found that 75% of workers reported being more productive when they work from home. 

Even the 9-to-5 workday model has repeatedly proven to be highly ineffective. Because no one, and I mean no one, can be highly productive for that long. In fact, according to the most current studies on the subject, the average worker is only productive for about 3 hours each workday

Compare this to remote workers who have control of how (and, under normal circumstances, where) they work. For myself, this looks like four 2-hour sprints of uninterrupted productivity, with one-hour breaks in-between. And even during these breaks, I keep an eye on my Slack in case anything comes through. 

You can do the math – but that is well over 3 hours of productivity, and these deliverables are typically more consistent and higher quality. 

So, no – I refuse to believe that these canned responses are why employers actually do not trust remote workers. The workforce is ready and unwilling to mess it up. So, I promise the remote worker is not the one benefiting more from the arrangement. 

The real why

If you ask me, this lack of trust has much less to do with the remote workers and more to do with the employer. 

When we talk to small businesses, we consistently see only a fraction of them have a playbook to keep their team aligned. And without documented processes, employers have failed to equip their workers, remote or not, to succeed.

Looking for a light switch

I imagine that going remote for these companies, especially on such short notice, is like searching for a light switch in a dark room – hazardous and widely ineffective. But I also doubt that forcing everyone to stay in the same place is much different. 

Without a playbook, it is nearly impossible to keep your team aligned, and this only becomes more of a challenge as the business evolves or distributes. 

Sure, by the end of each workday, the work is done. But that doesn’t mean that it was done efficiently, correctly, or that anyone else in your organization can step in, if necessary. 

Most of why I look to work remotely against pressing deadlines is so I can get a higher caliber work done much faster. By stepping away from my desk, I can limit the number of distractions and give my projects my full attention.  

I still Slack my manager with questions, share drafts with her, and build out the deliverables for her to approve. And if any part of the process warrants a conversation, we hop on Zoom. It’s business as usual, without us being in the same room. 

And before you try to argue otherwise, no, I am not the exception. When COVID-19 hit, it was never a question if our team could or would work from home. For the safety and well-being of our team, we would make the unexpected transition. 

And you know what happened? The entire office transitioned to mandatory remote work without disruptions to the business. (We even onboarded two new team members during this transition.) That’s because our leadership team trusts that they have equipped all of us to succeed from wherever, and knows that we will continue to do our best work. And our team continues to feel supported, despite the new work environment. 

BONUS: 3 ways to equip your remote workers for success

Struggling to trust your newly remote team? Here are three habits we swear by:

1. Keep your playbook updated. Trainual makes it easy to document your processes, transfer your organization’s knowledge, and keep your team aligned.

2. Invest in a digital office.  Consider your tech stack as an extension of your physical office space and use tools like ZoomSlack, and G Suite to nurture communication and collaboration from anywhere.

3. Encourage over communication. Put monthly all-hands meetings and daily team syncs on the calendar to make sure everyone is in the loop!

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