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3 Key Things to Remember About Remote Work

Building the right teamSo, I realize the whole “work from home vs. work in the office” debate is kind of done, right? Marissa Mayer sent out her memo—a year ago, I might add—the Internet exploded, and promptly forgot about it.

So, why am I bringing this up? Again? A year later?

Funny you should ask.

I was visiting with a client earlier this week and something interesting happened (all parties were completely fine with me sharing this story; as you might expect, names, and a boatload of details, have been changed).

A key individual, we’ll call him “Peter Gibbons” was working remotely to meet some fairly crushing deadlines. He, with the acknowledgement and endorsement of his team, turned off his phone and IM. It’s all good, as the kids say.

He churned out his work, reconnected his devices/utilities, and learned that the world had caught fire while he was offline. Um… kind of not cool.

Anyway, once they team got together, they fixed the issues, and life went on. Not great, mind you. But, y’know, fine.

Now, the guy was completely in the right on this one. He’d done everything right. Everyone thought it was cool. They made the best of the situation and discussed how to ensure this wouldn’t happen in the future (i.e., make sure Peter had some appropriate backup).

Except for one thing.

An individual on another team, who we’ll call “Michael Bolton,” completely lost his mind. “My work is just as important as that guy’s,” he bellowed. Well, insisted. But it came off kind of bellow-y. “How come I don’t get to do what he did? And what’s worse, the whole world caught fire! If that happened to me, I’d get reamed up and down. I’ve got to churn out (pick whichever one works for you):

  • the big client presentation; or,
  • that major press release; or,
  • 5,000 lines of code; or,
  • our entire business strategy for next year.”

He continued, “I’ve got important work to do. And I’m way more productive outside the office. I’m not constantly interrupted by other people and I can focus on getting my job done. It’s ridiculous that I’m held accountable for meeting specific productivity goals and not given the opportunity to meet them.”

And on and on and on. You know the type I’m talking about.

Now, to be fair, his last point has some merit and I’ll come back to that.

But, while I think remote work is right for many people in many situations, there are three, highly related reasons why not everyone should work remotely. At least not every single time they want to. Happily, this individual’s mentor laid them out plainly:

  1. You are not a number. Your value to your organization is more than a single measure, no matter how important the presentation, press release, code, or strategy you’re developing. Now, if you’re legitimately being interrupted by people talking about trivial, non-important stuff, you’ve got a legitimate reason to say, “Hey, sorry, but I can’t talk right now. I’ve really got to get these TPS reports to Lumbergh by the end of the day or they’ll take my Swingline stapler.” But, if they’re trying to solve real, honest-to-goodness work related things, take a minute to assess whether their things might be worth contributing to, too. Which leads to…
  2. You weren’t hired to do one thing. Your value is not that one thing you do. Doesn’t matter how good you are it, either. Part of your value to the organization is “dealing with interruptions” and being available to the rest of your team to answer questions, engage, brainstorm, and, participate in the overall process. Sometimes, maybe even go to a meeting (as long as it’s a useful meeting; I’ll have more to say about this another time). Part of your role in just about any organization is to help move the entire organization forward, not just your piece of it. Which leads to…
  3. Don’t confuse your productivity with your team’s productivity. Finally, this is the kicker. Your client presentation, press release, code, strategy, or what-have-you is undoubtedly important (if it really isn’t, but they’re having you do it anyway, you really want to schedule some time with Lumbergh to sort that out). It may in fact be critical to the organization. But it’s also possible that your focus on that thing creates a roadblock to others’ productivity and, worse, to that of the overall organization. When Peter Gibbons was out of the office and “the whole world caught fire,” it definitely delayed the team’s response. If two or three or four or more people are standing around waiting for you while you work on your project, that’s a pretty big hit to the organization as a whole.

Now, as for Michael Bolton’s complaint about being held accountable for meeting specific productivity goals and not having a realistic opportunity to meet those goals? Yeah, that’s bad. It’s not only demotivating; it can be downright soul-crushing.

What a good manager is supposed to do in those cases is work with Michael Bolton to determine the organization’s actual priorities and create an environment where Michael can both get his work done and get recognition for contributions to the team’s success too. Which, I’m thrilled to say, Michael’s manager accomplished handily.

So, does this mean I’m against remote work?

Absolutely not. Not even for Michael Bolton, sometimes.

With the right people, processes, and platforms in place, many organizations can benefit from getting their folks out of the office from time-to-time (I’d recommend revisiting these tips on how to do just that).

I’ve said many times, people don’t go online; they are online. The web, mobile, social. and otherwise, creates lots of opportunities for people to work at a remove and remain completely connected. What matters is how you make it work in your organization.

If you’re interested in learning more about the future of e-commerce and marketing via the social, local, mobile web, register to receive a special report I’ve produced in conjunction with hotel marketing firm Vizergy, “Digital Hotel Marketing in a Multiscreen World.” While it’s targeted specifically at hotel and resort marketers, the lessons apply to just about any business. You can get your free copy of the report here.

You might also enjoy some of our past coverage of the social, local, mobile web and what it means for your business, including:

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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