IBM recently informed its thousands of remote workers that the jig was up: They’d either have to relocate to one of the tech company’s offices or find new jobs. To be fair, only 56% of employers offer any kind of flexible work arrangements, but the move was met with criticism all the same. Even so, when big companies back away from remote work, it sends the message that remote workers aren’t as productive—a preconception that many need to go the extra mile to dispel.
Fast Company asked three full-time remote workers how they convince wary bosses and clients that they’ll be just as effective working at a distance as they would at company headquarters. Here’s what they said.
Put In Face Time First
Melody Thomas’s current job, as webmaster for the website of the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, wasn’t advertised as a remote position. But since her hiring manager knew Thomas lived 45 minutes from campus, she included that option as part of the offer.
“We made an agreement that for the first three months, I’d work in the office every day, and afterwards I’d come in only three days out of the week,” she says. “After working there for six months, I began to work remotely every day.”
Annik LaRoche Bradford did something similar before she and her husband left Canada a year ago to begin to house sit around the world. A communications consultant, LaRoche Bradford had spent the previous six years building up a base of clients—mostly content and advertising agencies with which she’d already forged solid working relationships.
But to make sure they’d stick with her, she says, “I invested over a year [prior to departing] . . . making sure my clients ‘built a habit’ of sending me work. I worked long hours, turned projects around on ridiculously short deadlines, spent a lot of time in face-to-face meetings, and brought goodies to their offices.”
All that in-person interaction eventually paid off. “I wanted to make sure that my clients knew me, knew my work, and knew they could trust me even from a distance.” Now a newly minted digital nomad, LaRoche Bradford has spent the past year in Thailand, Australia, and Austria, and has returned to Thailand to volunteer with an NGO in Chiang Mai. But she plans to pick up and move again in the next few months with her client base in tow.
Make Yourself Essential
After a stint at another major book publisher, Erica Warren went back to working for Macmillan in 2014. But the job she returned to was a more tech-heavy role than the production role she’d held there previously. At the time, Warren was working on her master’s degree in predictive analytics at New York University, and her new job at Macmillan was to develop user support systems for new tech initiatives that would be rolling out company-wide.
Warren knew that gave her a chance to make herself virtually indispensable. “Over the course of two to three years, I basically taught myself pretty niche programming things and built a tool for our specific workflow that’s now super-required to succeed in a bunch of projects we’re doing”—many of which, she adds, are directly saving the company money. “I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that nobody else could do this,” says Warren.
Even so, she and her wife had planned to move to the West Coast after Warren finished grad school, which she imagined would mean finding a new job. Like Thomas, Warren hadn’t given much thought to full-time remote work. But after discussing it with her manager—who all but said the company couldn’t afford to lose her—they set up an arrangement, and Warren has been working remotely from Portland since January.
Set Up Regular Check-Ins (Even If You Aren’t Asked To)
Before making the move, Warren says, “I was very anxious about being visibly productive, especially with a new director in my department.” Her team reassured her they weren’t concerned, but Warren was proactive anyway about setting up regular one-on-one check-ins with her boss, and she now spends more time on the phone with colleagues than she used to, “just so they know I’m here.”
“The kind of work I do is suited to clear, measurable goals,” Warren says, which also helps head off any worries about her productivity. Her team takes an agile project management approach that includes daily goal setting, so it’s always apparent how much she gets done.
Thomas also set up a weekly meeting with her boss “to discuss where we are on certain projects, expected deliverables, etc.” There are six people on her team, but she’s the only webmaster, so Thomas not only emails with her coworkers pretty regularly but also checks in via Google Hangouts to hash out any issues in real time. And like Warren’s at Macmillan, Thomas’s team also uses “a project management system to submit work requests, and we’re able to keep track on who’s working on what daily.”
Use The Time Difference As A Selling Point
Not every remote worker is half a world away from their bosses or clients, but for those who are, it can be an asset. “Most of my work comes through email,” LaRoche Bradford points out, “so whether it is received in Montreal—where I’m from—or halfway around the world, it makes no difference.”
“It’s been useful for my clients who work on very tight deadlines,” she adds. “And it has helped me say yes to more projects because, although my clients are going to bed, my day has just started. By the time they get up the next morning, the final document is in their inbox. That makes them really happy!”
These three remote workers may be the exceptions on teams that are otherwise based onsite. But Warren isn’t buying the argument that remote arrangements can’t work at scale.
As she sees it, the common refrain coming out of HR departments that “if we let you do it, then we’ll have to let everyone do it,” is an after-the-fact excuse for holding onto bad hires. “Managers know who is a high performer and who is not—it’s not a secret,” Warren says. “If you have people that you’re afraid if they’re working out of your sight, then they aren’t getting work done, why are they working for you in the first place?”
“That’s not a ‘work remotely’ problem,” she says. “That’s a management problem.”