People who appreciate the benefits of working remotely often find it unfathomable that any organization would prohibit the practice. To successful telecommuters, anyone who resists the lifestyle is missing a fundamental understanding about how knowledge workers work most efficiently.
But the contrasting viewpoint deserves to be honored as well. Plenty of businesses only hire onsite staff, and it isn’t solely because they’re wrong-headed meanies. I asked dozens of hiring managers to explain (mostly anonymously) why their companies have such a policy, and what it might take to change it.
You might object to some of these opinions, especially if your experience is different—but that makes it even more important to pay attention. Because if you do want to work remotely, it behooves you to understand the other party’s perceptions. You cannot counter a “No way!” attitude without addressing the would-be boss’ heartfelt—but often unexpressed—concerns.
Communication works better in person
By far, the most prevalent attitude is that rapport and camaraderie are generated best from in-person relationships. Hiring managers are convinced that colleagues build closer work relationships when they have lunch together, engage in water cooler chats about casual topics, or do team-building exercises. “I don't think people in remote locations are any different than my colleagues here,” explains one techie. “But the rapport is simply not there if I am going to meet them on video conferences or instant messaging only a few times a week.”
It’s not just the social time. In the eyes of many hiring managers, co-location encourages spontaneous and informal collaboration, Q&A, and problem solving, says David Silver, who owns executive search firm The Sterling Group. For the client, “It allows for an organic, real-time give-and-take,” Silver says.
Nor is this just a pronouncement from On High. Plenty of techies feel that on-site work keeps the barriers to communication as low as possible. “While tools like Slack and email get the job done if your team is working remotely, nothing beats being able to turn around in your chair and quickly engage another pair of developers (or the entire development team if necessary) in a quick discussion about something,” says one programmer committed to pair programming. Immediacy matters: “I can walk 30 steps or less and talk to anyone from the product or business teams about requirements,” he adds.
And even if everyone is comfortable with text chats and Google Hangouts, it’s still hard to collaborate spontaneously, says a developer I’ll call Phil. “I can't just walk to a whiteboard and draw something up quickly and have them easily see it.”
Creativity happens in the hallway
The communication concern isn’t only about paintball-inspired team building. There’s a strong perception that a lack of social interaction reduces creativity and innovation.
Most famously, in 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting at the company, saying, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.” Best Buy also ended its flexible work program at around the same time
Mayer isn’t the only executive—or techie colleague—with that sentiment. Nearly everyone can share a story about a just-in-passing conversation that led to a better business outcome: bumping into an old teammate whose experience helped your project, a casual chat in which a buddy mentions her technology need where you know the right person, a discussion on the smoking patio that led to 10 new feature enhancements.
A culture dependent on spontaneous discussions leaves out telecommuters, with an impact on their job roles. “When I was at the office for a decade, 90% of the insight and productivity came from informal conversations in the hallway, lunches, and things I overheard in passing,” says Steve, who is now a remote worker. Now, he says, most communication is deliberate (an email, text, meeting), leaving him out of ad-hoc conversations. “The net result is my personal career becomes very confined and stunted,” he says. “I become that guy who does that one thing rather than a team-member who has an awareness of everything and the ability to jump in as needed.”
The opportunity for “Hey can you take a look at this…?” conversations is a valuable one. However, those who prefer remote work hasten to point out the other side of the story: “Interactions” are really interruptions that cost creative flow and productivity. For example, one telecommuting software engineer says, in the office, “The distractions were unbearable. Phones ringing, people walking by who always felt the need to interrupt me about anything (work-related or not), and many phone calls about unrelated projects that resulted in context switching.”
But plenty of companies put their attention on what’s visible—how many serendipitous events came from water cooler conversations—and not the heads-down productivity at home. Which brings us to the next point.
Managing remote workers is harder
In any context, management is a matter of trusting other people to know what they’re doing and to get the work done. Hiring managers never told me, “I don’t trust my people” directly, nor “We pay attention to butts in seats.” Instead, they spoke of accountability, training, and accessibility.
Plus, one bad remote apple does spoil the barrel. “Our management wants people onsite for better control,” says a techie I’ll call Joan. “We had some remote employee not work out, therefore all remote is ‘bad.’” The team has been working with a new remote QA team and has two telecommuting developers, all of whom are doing well. But, says Joan, management pushes back. “Some managers like to interrupt frequently for ‘urgent fires,’ and that is easier when someone is a few meters away.”
Managers stress the need to mentor junior team members—a process that’s more difficult when a newbie doesn’t know when it’s time to ask for help. The typical inexperienced tech worker isn't communicative enough for senior mentors to recognize when and how much the worker is struggling—not without seeing them. Says Susan, an infosec specialist, “This means that mentoring and support can come on a huge lag, which means it's harder to train and inculcate, which means the junior experiences successes at a slower pace, which is bad for their morale and productivity.”
“Interns and new hires much prefer somebody sitting with them and collaborating,” adds Phil. “Sure, you can do screen sharing, but it’s not the same at all.”
The extra logistics aren’t worth it
Changing business policies to permit remote work means that the company has to re-think several business processes, and the payoff isn’t obvious. The organization doesn’t know how to deal with the differences, and if you can avoid a risk, it makes sense to do so.
Organizations built on the assumption of on-site staff know how to support those users. Remote staff require more overhead, because now you need processes for on-site and off-site people: everything from fixing printing problems to ensuring the VPN works correctly to setting up new security procedures.
The cloud and SaaS applications have made some of this easier, and there are more ways to communicate online. But, say several techies, meetings are hindered by teleconferencing. For example, it’s hard to hear the remote person, even with high-quality video and audio, not to mention all-too-frequent tech failures.
Everybody does it that way
Conservatism often wins. When it comes to remote work, the benefits are fuzzy while the risks and costs are clear. On-site is the default. As long as the company can hire the people it wants, at a price it can afford, why change?
Or as one startup team member says, “I don't have a lot of great confidence in my hiring practices, and the owners of the company are a little more conservative. As such, I make the safer choice to hire candidates willing to work on-site instead. I can see when they come in, I can task and re-task on a whim, and I have a much better sense of when they begin to head down rabbit holes.”
Telecommuting is successful when the company has a “remote first” attitude, and that’s hard unless you’re starting from scratch. “Hiring remote employees without the organizational foundation to support them is a recipe for disaster,” says one startup founder. “Most companies have other priorities than to tackle this kind of change, and quite frankly, don’t need to look outside a 30-mile radius to find qualified candidates.”
And while plenty of remote workers huff about organizations missing out on great job candidates by sticking to a no-telecommuting policy, that rarely distresses the HR department. They still have plenty of people applying. If the company can’t find the right people in six months, says executive search pro Silver, he can bring up the topic again. “This has sometimes limited the number of good candidates and sometimes not,” says Silver.
What if you want to telecommute anyway?
Perhaps you have your heart set on a job at a particular company, despite its reluctance to support remote workers. Or maybe you know you’re the right person for the job, even if the job req clearly says, “Local candidates only.”
Under the right circumstances, it may be possible to change their minds. Here are a few points to make during those conversations.
Argue based on their cost savings. A company in an expensive city can afford to hire a telecommuting senior staffer for a local junior salary. Susan, the InfoSec specialist, applied for on-site jobs and got telecommute arrangements a few times. “My biggest selling point was, ‘I live in the Midwest, and expect to make $X; if I move to SF/NYC/etc., my cost of living will skyrocket, and I will need to make $2.5X.’ It's true. My huge farmhouse on 3.25 acres cost less than a two bedroom condo goes for in San Francisco.”
Alternatively, says Susan, suggest contract work rather than W2 employment. “Compensation was adjusted accordingly (e.g. so I could buy my own insurance), and their HR departments were less nervous that way, for reasons I've never fully understood.”
Show that you’ve telecommuted successfully. Silver’s clients are more amenable to hiring someone who can demonstrate being accountable, with a track record of successful remote work.
One element of that argument may be to offer to visit the office regularly—a practice on which most successful telecommuters insist (for communication reasons), so it’s no hardship. Maybe it’s in-office two days in five. Or if the employee is in another state, suggest you spend one week in the office every two months. “Being an integral part of the work culture is crucial,” says Joy Perry, CEO of JZP Consulting, an executive search firm for technology startups. “The only way to achieve that is by being present and embedded with the team culture.”
Be a rock star in your domain. “For the right talent and when a role has been open for a very long time, they tend to give in,” says Perry. “But not right away.”
“Keep on negotiating if you feel strongly about telecommuting,” says Perry. “As the employee, you may have to give in initially. As time goes on and trust and your performance have been consistently validated, go for it! Ask for that option. Everything can always be negotiated.”
That was true for a Ben, who got a remote job with a startup in Dallas because he had bargaining power. “A friend was going in as the director of engineering and really wanted me, and I basically made being 80% remote a condition of my employment,” he says.
It was also true for me, your loyal author. “The company really wants someone on-site,” said the recruiter. I responded, “I’m sure that when the hiring manager sees my body of work—and 20 years of telecommuting experience—she’ll want to speak with me.” (What did I have to lose? I might as well ask for what I want.) I started working at the company six weeks later.
Start out on-site, and go remote gradually. Give the managers time to realize they can trust you when you’re out of their sight—and their site.
For example, Josh was hired as a freelancer in a no-telecommuting company. After 18 months he was bored, and ready to leave; a two-hour commute didn’t help. The organization wanted him to stay, so he said he’d do so if he could telecommute two days a week. “I already had their trust and they knew I delivered, so they agreed cheerfully,” he says. “It would have never happened if I had asked for telecommuting at day one.”
But do ask yourself just how much of a stink you’re willing to make. Do you really want to work at a company that doesn’t trust you?
“Companies refusing telecommuters for senior staff positions usually have an underlying communication or trust problem,” says Susan. “I tend to steer clear, having been burned before.”
And while these tips may be helpful, don’t expect that they’ll always work. Some organizations have “must be onsite” built into the culture. You can invent the Web, and Google still won’t make it easy for you to work remotely.
Are you—and your company—committed to making remote work a success? Read the accompanying report, “The Remote Worker's Survival Guide,” to find out what successful telecommuters learned the hard way.