Facts and Myths about Remote work

While working on The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work (An Amazon.com best book of 2013), I’ve heard every misnomer and myth about working remotely. Here’s a rundown on common assumptions with corrections.

By converting myths into facts, you’ll improve your thinking about whether remote work is for you or not.

  1. Not all remote work is the same. Some companies, like Automattic, are primarily distributed, meaning nearly all employees work remotely (here’s a list of primarily distributed companies). Most companies are primarily centralized, with most employees occupying the same central office space and a minority working remotely. There is a spectrum of distribution and you can find organizations with 50/50 or 25/75 or 75/25 splits of where people work. Each presents different challenges.
  2. Remote work doesn’t necessarily mean working from home. Working from home is one kind of remote work. Many remote workers work in shared coworking spaces, replicating many of the social benefits of an office without the stressful commute. Others find productivity in coffee-shops or libraries. The powerful benefit of remote work is it empowers employees to find for themselves where and how to be most productive instead of presuming management knows best for every individual.  
  3. Remote work is common. About 1 in 5 workers on the planet work remotely. Major corporations like Accenture, Fed-Ex, Cisco, Deloitte, IBM, Intel have invested heavily in remote work programs, finding that the benefits outweigh the challenges (See Top 10 major Telecommuting companies).
  4. Some work is easier, or harder, to do remotely. You won’t find restaurants or construction crews that are 100% distributed: the physical nature of the work makes this impossible. The more autonomy workers have, and the clearer the goals of the work are, the easier it is for remote workers to perform well. Customer support work is a common remote work role at companies that don’t allow remote work generally, since the work is direct interaction with customers, not coworkers. But surprisingly, highly collaborative work like software development is a common type of remote work, and most of the primarily distributed companies I’ve found are software companies.
  5. When you work primarily in email and web browsers, you’re nearly a remote worker. Consider how little of your time in a physical office is spent interacting with co-workers without a computer. Much of modern office work is is done through technology, which could be done from anywhere. In this light remote work isn’t so strange.
  6. The primary challenges are cultural. Clearly some organizations have found success with remote work and others have struggled. The main challenges are 1) management culture’s willingness to delegate control over workplace choice to employees and 2) employees collective choice to take advantage of, and not to abuse, that granted power. The notion of Results Only Work, where employees are evaluated primarily on performance, should be indifferent to many superficial factors, including where the work was done. Why does it matter if you did your work down the hall, or from your basement, if the quality of the work was the same in every way? It shouldn’t.
  7. But it’s clearly not for everyone. Work can never be one size fits all. Personal preference matters, and some people definitely see their morale decline if they’re not in the same physical space with coworkers (In my poll of 595 readers, most wanted to at least try remote work, but many had strong negative opinions). There are social and psychological advantages to being in the same physical space with the people you’re working with. But rarely will you see companies that promote remote work mandate it. The philosophy of many companies that allow remote workers is employees should be empowered to figure out for themselves how to be most productive, and to support them once they figure it out.

Also see: Grand Summary of Remote Work posts.

What are other common myths you’ve heard about remote work? Leave a comment and I’ll investigate.

6 Responses to “Facts and Myths about Remote work”

  1. Magnus Smith

    When I tell someone that I work from home, they assume I skive off for a vast percentage of the day. The myth that home workers can get away with doing less work is supported when I hear a friend say, “I’m going to the supermarket now – I’m working from home today, you see….” and thinking that carrying a Blackberry to the shop will keep them safe if the boss emails.

    1. elise mccabe

      I don’t think that going to the supermarket in the middle of the day necessarily translates as I’m slacking off many hours of the days. Some work from home positions, facilitate a work when you want sort of schedule provided you get your work done & meet the required deadlines. It’s one of the perks of working from home in my opinion; the luxury of deciding that if I want to take a break to clean my house or go to the shop I can & then do my work later on in the evening.

  2. Mike Grosse

    Is there any documented research that supports the assumptions (they aren’t “facts” until they can be substantiated) stated in this article.
    There is a big difference between telecommuniting and teleworking.

  3. Edsel Mendoza

    I couldn’t agree more with your second point. I think that most people still have their minds set on remote working being exclusively a work-from-home setup. As you’ve mentioned, other remote staffing services out there use coworking spaces. Our company (www.boltonstaffing.com), for example, does exactly that. Our remote workers work for different companies from all around the globe, but share one office without any trouble. If more business owners recognize this, then they wouldn’t find the concept of remote work limited to non-office environments. Thanks for the link to the Inc. article as well – very useful.



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