The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has long faced a problem.
It needs experts in science, technology, and other fields to evaluate patent applications. But people with such expertise often have lots of employment prospects. How could the government make itself an attractive option?
The agency’s solution–let many employees work from anywhere as long as they meet their production quotas–has been hailed as a model for employers. The USPTO could hire people who didn’t want to live near Washington, D.C. The agency saved taxpayers money on real estate costs as well.
But now that model is being questioned. Perhaps due to lax oversight, some employees (including paralegals) weren’t doing much actual work. Some members of Congress have called for an investigation into these problems.
By one estimate, half of workers may be working remotely by 2020. So this raises the question: is freeloading an inherent risk when you let people work from home?
The short answer is no.
Freeloading is an inherent risk of bad management and dishonest individuals, who exist no matter where people work. “You can’t just let people go and assume they’re doing their jobs,” says Allison O’Kelly, CEO of Mom Corps, a professional staffing company that often places people in flexible and telecommuting jobs. Sometimes managers assume that “because people are working remotely you don’t have to check in with them, and that’s where people get into trouble.”
O’Kelly manages a virtual team, and says that in her company’s case, “We’re talking all the time. If folks are not engaged and not doing what they need to be doing it becomes obvious really quickly.”
From studying the companies where she’s placed people, O’Kelly notes that organizations that do remote work well have a certain culture. “I think the number one important thing is communication,” she says. This can take very different forms, from a weekly call or in-person meeting to frequent instant messaging and Google Hangouts.
Companies that do remote work well are also good at setting clear performance objectives, and holding people accountable for them. Mom Corps is “very much results-oriented, so for us, if things aren’t getting done, it doesn’t matter whether it’s because somebody is taking advantage of the system or somebody is not competent or capable. It’s all the same,” O’Kelly says. “We have needs for a particular position, and if those needs are not being met, then we make some changes.”
Finally, in companies that do remote work well, “You should be managing only the amount of people who you can handle managing,” says O’Kelly. Often, remote work problems are “the fault of the employer for giving people too many people to manage”–potentially numbering into the 3-figures. “How can you possibly know if 200 people are doing the things they’re supposed to be doing day-to-day?”
In any case, when problems arise, it’s always easy to blame the new thing people aren’t sure about, and remote work falls into this category. But given how much time people spend surfing the web during the work day, it’s pretty clear that you don’t need to work from home to goof off.
Some people “are going to game the system whether they’re working in the office or working at home,” O’Kelly says, but most telecommuters are so grateful for the option that they aren’t going to take advantage of the situation. It would be unfortunate if a few bad seeds “ruin it for everyone else.”