• 01.16.14

Do Remote Workers Actually… Work?

Telecommuting is more common than ever, but it can devastate morale and demotivate people. Here’s how to make sure it doesn’t.

Do Remote Workers Actually… Work?
[Image: Flickr user Adam Tinworth]

If you’re looking for a job right now, chances are you’ll come across a listing for at least one listing that involves telecommuting. Census data shows that more Americans are working remotely, and studies show that having the option to work from home can increase worker productivity. But while the viability of the remote workplace has been much discussed since several high-profile tech companies decided to eliminate telecommuting, most outlets have merely examined it in terms of efficacy–i.e., does a remote work environment benefit a company’s overall productivity?


Fewer consider the very specific set of demands that a remote work environment makes of individual employees. A recent blog post from Kurt Mackey of cloud database company MongoHQ argues that we haven’t paid enough attention to what it takes to build an effective remote working environment, and that we worry more about the logistics of working remotely than the impact it can have on employee morale:

Like most decep­tively sim­ple ideas, remote work is easy and amaz­ing when every­thing is going well. If your com­pany is killing it, all the hockey sticks point up, and every­one gets along amaz­ingly well, the remote work cul­ture is prob­a­bly good. There is dan­ger, how­ever, when things go south. We’ve expe­ri­enced the emo­tional troughs as a com­pany, and had indi­vid­u­als fight their own per­sonal battles.

While it is important to consider if a new hire has the skill set necessary to work remotely, a company must also take care to create an environment that is friendly to remote employees. It’s necessary to be cognizant of things that are given up in a remote work environment–like office culture and any sort of rapport among coworkers–and to go out of the way to make up for it. “Work­ing in a way that’s inclu­sive of peo­ple who aren’t phys­i­cally (or even tem­po­rally) present is not entirely nat­ural,” writes Mackey, “and exclud­ing remote employ­ees from impor­tant inter­ac­tions is a quick path to agony.”

It requires a lot of trust on the part of the employer–something that’s harder to do with someone you’re rarely going to see in person, but no less necessary, writes Adii Pienarr for UC Berkeley’s Scalable Startups blog:

This means that from day one, new team members know what’s expected from them, and they know that we won’t be around (sometimes because it’s physically impossible) to check up on them to make sure they meet those expectations. This trust also creates a blank canvas for team members to do their best work, where they have the freedom to solve a problem in the best way they see fit, whilst possessing the opportunity to be accountable and responsible for their own work.

Unfortunately, the business world has yet to establish an effective standard for how to best manage and structure a good remote work environment–or a traditional work environment, for that matter–but the immense flexibility that it affords in conjunction with the wealth of collaborative tools available allows for endless tinkering, and that’s a good thing. Ask around and see what works best for others, suggests Zapier’s Wade Foster, who lists a number of resources in addition to his company’s approach.

While it’s tempting to merely consider the pros and cons of working remotely as if all approaches of doing so were equally effective, doing so could be a detriment to a company’s success and employee morale. Working remotely is a work in progress for everyone involved.