How to lobby your manager for more flexibility on working remotely.
Q: Our organization is planning to require us all to return to our offices soon. Company leaders say we haven’t been as “productive” working remotely, but I disagree. How can I make them see that many of us actually do better work at home?
A: Remote work has put employers in a pickle, as my grandmother would say. On the one hand, the stay-at-home requirements of the pandemic have proven that remote work is a viable option in more situations than anyone thought possible. The things most employers feared—drops in productivity, mass alienation—haven’t come to pass, or can be explained by the unique torture of the pandemic (we’re looking at you, screaming toddler and remote-schooling tween) or other organizational factors (like this proving-the-obvious study showing that companies who already collaborated productively made the transition to remote work just fine, but those who were sort of meh continued to struggle). Lots of research (from Gallup, Pew, Gartner, and The New York Times) show that many employees love working remotely—no commute, more flexible hours, uninterrupted work time. Personally, I’ve discovered I have better ideas while wearing sweat pants than tailored trousers.
On the other hand, social connection is a core building block of engagement and happiness, even for introverts, but few have figured out how to do it well via Slack and Zoom. After months and months (and months) of mostly transactional interactions, I can tell my bonds with colleagues are starting to fray. Many managers are also profoundly old-school in their management tactics; they suspect that work only happens when they are watching; these dinosaurs might benefit from learning the skills to manage outcomes, not activities. And many folks are aching to go back to their familiar, well-worn patterns of leaving their house and seeing people they haven’t been cooped up with for over a year.
Many employers, including yours, have fallen into an either-or trap about remote work: either everyone works at home 100 percent of the time or everyone goes back to 1998’s all-office-all-the-time world. This ignores the vast, rich spectrum of options between those two positions. Can your company find a spot that reaps the benefits of remote work (employee satisfaction and well-being, real estate savings, productive desk time) and the benefits of being in the office (social connection, innovation sparked by casual collaboration)? Can they allow those itching to get away from their house to do so, and those that love their 30-second commute to maintain it, at least part of the time? Giving people options and a sense of control over their destiny is a key tactic of engagement.
Start by sharing the research about the benefits of working remotely for many people. Ask them about their concerns about remote work. If it sounds like, “But how do I know you’re working?” propose some concrete outcomes they can hold you to; it’s always awkward to teach your manager how to manage you, but sometimes it’s what they need. Help them separate the actual challenges of remote work from those that are pandemic-specific, or due to (ahem) your organization’s suboptimal policies, systems, and or management skills.
To be honest, most employers are profoundly confused about what to do. Many are simply aping what high-profile companies are doing. But even they are seesawing back and forth on their plans. During this time of uncertainty, you might start a low-level campaign to wear them down. Send an article every week or two that covers the benefits of remote work and flexibility and the companies that are continuing to allow remote work (e.g. Google, Facebook).
And if they don’t show more flexibility, you can decide whether to take your talent and energy somewhere that lets you pet your dog during meetings.