Don’t people slack off when they work remotely?

Reading Time: 11 minutes

It makes sense for you to be concerned about people slacking off when they work remotely.

When everyone is colocated, you can walk through your office and see that folks are present. You can check in with them, ask them questions, or check out what they’re working on over their shoulder. But when people work remotely, many of those things become invisible—and once you lose that visibility, it feels like folks are working less. With so much freedom and without the work environment to keep your employees on task, won’t they slack off?

The answer is yes: people slack off sometimes when they work remotely.

It’s true. People check Facebook at home. They also check Facebook at work. They also check Facebook when they’re at home watching their favorite movie with the person they love the most in the world, which goes to show that people are going to do this literally anywhere with literally anyone.

People sometimes get distracted, go down a rabbit-hole of curiosity, or take a break. That’s true no matter where they are or what they’re doing. Sometimes the slacking off does look different at home than it does at work: at home I stand up, make myself a bubble tea, and go stare at geese for ten minutes. At work I stand up, make myself a hot tea, and chitchat with the facilities staff for ten minutes.

bubble tea

The former doesn’t take more time than the latter. However, it can feel longer to my colocated peers. Why? Because when I’m at home, I announce on the team chat app that I’m taking a break and I announce when I come back—so people can compare the times and think ‘wow, that took sixteen minutes.’ Also when I’m at home, people don’t see me while I’m on a break. Compare this to the office: I don’t usually announce my departure and return on the messaging app since I’m right there, so there isn’t a metric announcing my sixteen minute unproductive period. Also, my coworkers walk by and see me making tea. This registers in memory as my presence, even though I’m not writing code.

But it’s okay if your employees take a little slack-off time. It’s their work, not their slack-off time, that matters to your business.

Your concern is that employees will do less work, or lower quality work, if they work remotely. Luckily, you have an excellent way to judge if this is happening: look at their work.

Basecamp cofounder Jason Fried argues that we accidentally disincentivize quality work at the office. This happens because our evaluation of colocated employees’ work gets muddled by proxy metrics that don’t line up with actual work product. Instead they line up with butts-in-seats absolutist rhetoric: ‘Is this person here by X time?’ or ‘Did this person take too many breaks today?’ or ‘Did I just see Facebook on that person’s screen?’ So employees devote energy to optimizing on those metrics, instead of optimizing on better work. When employees get evaluated on the work, they can focus on improving the work—and you, as a business, get a better result.

You also want people to slack off sometimes in order to achieve the benefits of collaborative creativity.

In a previous post, we examined why companies recalled remote workers. None of them said ‘these maggots were slackin’ off at home’ (actually I did find one company that said this, but we’ll get to their story soon.) Rather, three of the five companies we have discussed recalled their remote teammates expressly to increase opportunities for creative collaborations. These don’t happen when everyone is zooming along at peak productivity. They happen when the designers are standing at the espresso maker spitballing about an article they saw on their favorite blog last night. People come up with new ideas when they have some spare concentration power: that is, precisely when they’re not deep in one task or another. You need both states to get the most out of your employees. And you can, in fact, get both states from employees whether they are in the office or remote. We’ll talk more about that later.

There are situations where employees’ productivity dips when they’re working remotely. 

Good news: it’s not because they’re remote, exactly. 

Bad news: it’s because they’ve somehow become demoralized, and their physical distance from the company gives them the space to disengage from situation they’re unhappy with.

Note that demoralized is not a characteristic inherent to certain employees. In the vast majority of cases, this is not a matter of hiring the right people or the wrong people. It’s a matter of properly managing the people.

This is one place where I break in opinion with the 37Signals philosophy, which seems to suggest that the trick is to hire for trustoworthiness and passion. In the book Remote: Office Not Required, James Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson explain that if you cannot trust your people to work remotely, then you should not have hired them at all. Fried discusses working remotely (specifically over-working remotely) as a product of hiring people who are ‘passionate.’ 

Ingrained in these views are some inaccurate assumptions: first, that it’s easy to hire untrustworthy people (it’s not), and second, that passionate people produce superior work (they don’t).

First of all, almost no one is inherently untrustworthy.

It’s possible to hire someone who is inherently untrustworthy, but it’s also rare. So if this is your go-to conclusion, you’ll end up making an insulting assumption about a lot of people who don’t deserve it.

Think about it. Most people do not sign on to spend the majority of their waking lives undermining an operation to their own detriment. It’s neither rational nor emotionally gratifying. Who would do this? You can go your whole career and never encounter a single person who would intentionally do this.

Second of all, passion is a false correlate for superior work.

Lots of people get into tech because it’s a lucrative profession and they want to provide for their family. And you know what? The quality of their code is as good as the people who do it out of ‘passion.’ Trust me on this. I’ve paired with 121 programmers so far in my career. No correlation between passion and code quality.

Additionally, the attitudes and behaviors that we associate with ‘passion’ are often a poor fit for the workplace. ‘Passion’ frequently translates into an unyielding enthusiasm that prevents ‘passionate’ employees from listening to coworkers or believing that anyone else might have something valuable to say. ‘Passionate’ can mean a programmer who goes off on their own and does it the way they know it should be done, then pushes it to master so the rest of the team has to suck it up and deal with it or extricate both that person and their code. That kind of a person can be hell on the team.

The ranks of accountants, payroll administrators, telemarketers, and customer support specialists are filled with people doing a great job who would never call their job their passion; a lot of people in those professions also happen to work in a different location than the company they’re working for without incident. I’m not surprised that Zapier, Buffer, and Automattic have succeeded with remote work. Their core value propositions lie in these fields where people already have remote skills. They’re decidedly not fields that wax poetic about ‘passion.’

Your unproductive remote employee isn’t a dud: they’re upset. 

Most employees start out well-meaning, trying their best, and wanting what’s best for the company. Then something happens to demoralize them.

It usually has to do with poor company culture or a superior failing to listen to those employees and get them what they need.

To demonstrate what I mean about the demoralizing, I can provide an example. It is the only example I found in the bloggerature I read of a small company that recalled their remote employee program. NBC interviewed RLM Public Relations CEO Richard Laermer about the 11-person company’s decision to recall its remote employees.

Laermer said “Our experiment in letting people work from home on Fridays backfired…the things people did on their ‘free’ time astounded me.”

The article continues: “Laermer points to the immaturity of certain staff members, and their lack of desire/ability to focus on work while out of the office as the reasons why he eliminated telecommuting (and fired a few employees).”

Just based on the fact that this guy openly insults his employees in news interviews, I wouldn’t work for him. But while I trust my gut instinct, I also verify. So looked up Richard Laermer’s other statements to give him a chance to redeem himself as a manager.

He fared poorly.

Anyone in management who says this is outing themselves as unqualified for management. Safe and inclusive both mean things, and plenty of research has demonstrated that they are critical to the ongoing success of work teams. Evidently Laermer has not bothered to look up either one.

Let’s set aside all of Louis C.K.’s egregious moral failures. Even if we do that, this joke attempts to capitalize on a deep animus toward the exact generation of people that Richard Learner employs: Millennials. And here we have Laermer quoting it as incisive commentary.

This mensch is convinced that his remote policy was the reason people didn’t have their noses to the grindstone for him.

If the attitudes demonstrated by Laermer’s tweets aren’t enough to convince you that he’s a rotten manager, I recommend you read what folks have had to say on Glassdoor (Those two links are different). It’s worth noting that, while there are both positive and negative reviews on there, the negative reviews spread out across four years, while the positive reviews all popped up in about a one month period from late February to late March of 2017, all from current employees. That’s what happens when someone in management notices the company’s shitty Glassdoor profile and boot-to-necks a few people around the office to write something nice. I’m not saying that this is what happened at RLM. I’m saying their profile is consistent with the profiles of companies where this has happened. I’m familiar with the pattern because I worked at two companies that did it (neither one in tech) and heard testimony about two other companies that also did it (both in tech).

RLM is a public relations firm whose CEO drags his own employees in news interviews. If the company ends up in the dust, that’s a reason. Remote Fridays are not a reason.

So what’s the lesson here? It’s that remote work is not the engine failure: it’s the ‘check engine’ light. It makes you aware of a preexisting problem, and in this case the preexisting problem is a poor connection between managers and reports. Recalling the remote team turns off the ‘check engine’ light. but the engine isn’t fixed. You’ll still have engine failure later—something like, say, catastrophic attrition.

So how do you fix the engine?

Well, your root cause here has to do with a poor company culture or a poor experience with management pushing employees to disengage from their work. How do you fix that root cause? You can do it by retraining and empowering managers to manage on behalf of their reports, or you can do it by changing your company culture—which, coincidentally, starts with retraining and empowering managers to manage on behalf of their reports. It’s inconvenient and uncomfortable, but it’s a long-term solution that creates a better overall company—not just a more remote-capable company.

We have talked about how to do this exact thing before! Check out this post on structural incentives for managers to manage up versus manage down.

But also, continuing specifically with the remote work theme, we’ll talk next about remote meetings, and why they have so many technical problems.

If you’re interested in remote work and managing remote teams, you might also like to read:

Why do large companies keep abandoning remote work?

If remote work is so awesome, why does it make my job harder?

Managing Humans: my favorite parts of Michael Lopp’s book on engineering management

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.