The Problem With Remote Working Isn’t The Remote Working Part

Reading articles like this one from Bloomberg titled, “Wrinkles in Time-Tracking for Remote Workers Present Challenges” make my Generation X eye-roll go from coast to coast.

I am sure you are familiar with the concept of remote working. I remember when I was first introduced to the concept in the 1990s. Back then, it was so new that we needed a way to differentiate it from regular working. Now, I think we are reaching the point in our technological evolution and our collective culture where we can just call it “working.” For the sake of clarity for this article, I’ll continue to refer to it as “remote working” but grudgingly so.

The point of this article was about how Human Resources can better track and manage the hours remote workers are claiming on their paychecks. The whole tenor of the article reminded me of the old school anti-remote working sentiment.

In one instance, the article even brought up the tired concept of “if we can’t see you, how do we know you’re actually working?”

*Eye roll explained*

The thing is, the biggest problem with remote working isn’t the remote working part.

The problem is not grounded in the employee’s distance from the hub of operations. An employee can be stationed right next to the manager and still be less productive and less engaged than the person working 25 miles away (or 1,000 miles away) at a Starbucks.

Distance isn’t the issue if you are worried about an employee wasting time.

Look at this Forbes article and you can see that “wasting time” is something many of us do while at the workplace.

I have a different take.

Time can only be wasted if the employee should be doing something else with their time at any given time. But what if an employee completes the work they are expected to do in 5 hours instead of 8? Should they just look busy for the remainder?

How many of us have looked busy when we actually were done with our work for the day.

Better question for those of us who have more work to do than we could ever complete in a reasonable day – how should an employee best manage themselves and their work to do as much as is reasonable?

How far should we move the ball down the field on any given day?

The real problem with remote work, and the real problem with employees “wasting time” at work, and the real problem with effectiveness in general at work is that leaders are working too much “in the business” and not enough “on the business.”

This concept of “in the business” and “on the business” I am stealing from Michael Gerber’s book The E-Myth Revisited. Good book, by the way.

Many managers I have come across have a set it and forget it attitude when it comes to their team.

I get it. Managers these days are working their tails off just as hard, or harder, than their team. They are managing the people, the product, and the process. Lots to do.

It can be hard to take a step back and evaluate the overall job, or even a project, from a distance. There’s no time to do it!

We are so caught up inside the whirlwind of the daily grind that we often fail to get outside of it on enough instances to see the larger picture.

While this is primarily a management issue, managers aren’t the only ones with issues when it comes to work.

Many workers I have come across either don’t have the courage, the resources, or the clarity to speak up when things aren’t working out. Either there is too much work, not enough work to do, too much boring work, too much creative work, too much time in the office, too many meetings, or whatever.

It really doesn’t matter what the issue is, but many employees have some issue that needs to be addressed that doesn’t get addressed.

Put both together and it’s a recipe for some amount of lost efficiency and weirdness. In the end, people are going to check Facebook.

The difference is that the responsibility for ensuring that employees are meeting expectations for work rests with the organization’s leadership.

Does that strike you as too lopsided. Shouldn’t the employee have some responsibility in there too, you ask?


So, let’s open that up a bit.

Leadership is an action.

The leaders of any organization have an inherent responsibility to work “on the business” in addition to working “in the business.”

In part, working on the business is about working with the team to set up the right jobs in the right way. It is about setting clear expectations for what is to be achieved, holding those to account for their actions, setting expectations about personal conduct in completing any job, checking in on progress, and so on. You know, manager stuff.

As leadership goes about the continual process of setting, clarifying, and enforcing expectations (all designed with input from the team, of course), things will begin to change.

The employee has responsibility to do their work, but the leadership has the overall responsibility in deciding what the work is and what the expectations are.

If the employee is getting their work done in six hours instead of eight hours then it’s totally fine for them to be on Instagram. If the six hour day for the employee continues, it is the manager’s job to get in there and make whatever corrections need to be made.

Please note above that I said it’s a continual process. As in, for the the rest of your time in this leadership position you will need to be doing these things on a regular basis.

It wil require some sweaty palm conversations from you as a leader, but that’s the job you signed up for.

And that type of leadership is more important now than ever before.


PS – I would rather have an employee who spent an hour a day on Facebook but crushed the other 7 hours, then to have an employee who is a 70 percenter all day long. Just sayin’…

by Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan is the Head Coach at Sandcastle Company, a Seattle-based leadership training organization. His first book, Future Leader: Rebooting Leadership to Win the Millennial and Tech Future [link], is now available. Jonathan regularly writes and speaks about The New Leader Way, leadership resilience, and the future of work. He has years of leadership experience in both the public and private sectors, a master's degree from Seattle University, and professional coach training from the University of Miami.
Published on June 23, 2017

You Might Also Like…

The sound of your work eulogy

What would your work eulogy sound like? Maybe that opener sounds a bit morbid. The idea isn't about dying, it's about...

The 737-MAX has a trust problem

The 737-MAX is back in action! Now, if you had to board one tonight how you feel? Would it soothe you to know that the...

How gracious can you be?

How gracious can you be? That email with just enough snark. The person who is 10 minutes late to your virtual meeting....

A-Players consistently invest in themselves. Take the next step.