I worked for a distributed company with hundreds of remote workers around the world for 10 years. The question I was consistently asked the most from people outside the company, especially in the beginning: “How do you make sure people are working instead of goofing off at home?” The question was misaligned with my actual experience. The team wasn’t goofing off – they were working. Remote team members are always at “work” due to the nature of most remote work environments and, if anything, have to be encouraged to set boundaries and take time off. In my opinion, what people were really asking about boils down to this: trust.
Some people expected us to use webcams to monitor employees to make sure they were working. We thought that was ludicrous (for many reasons) and went in the opposite direction. We told employees that we’d have zero check-ins or supervision, instead we trusted them to get their work done in any way they liked, picking their own hours, work habits, and home office settings. After all, the freedom to choose how to work is one of the great benefits of remote work, and as long as the results are there, it shouldn’t matter when or how we work. Then we took it a step further. We were a group of people that rarely saw each other and worked in a very loosely connected fashion from around the globe, and we decided that the best, maybe the only, way for a group like that to flourish and bring out the best in each other was to have a very high level of trust that everyone was doing their part. So we made trust a basic building block of our company culture. For example, every engineer got the keys to the castle – the ability to push code to production servers – on day one because we trusted them to check their code before pushing it live. We openly shared all company information internally, including board decks, financials, and partner discussions and trusted people not to leak it (no one ever did). Every team got to pick their own budgets and locations anywhere in the world for their team meetups, and we trusted them to pick well and then share the results with other teams for future planning. The more we trusted people, the better it worked, so we kept doing it and never looked back. The end result has been that everyone does great work and trusts others to do the same, leading to a lot of productivity and to feeling connected and happy to work together despite living far apart.
My advice to leaders who find themselves thrust into remote work due to COVID: don’t bemoan the fact that you can no longer use offices and physical proximity to build trust and don’t try to tighten control and oversight of remote team members. Instead double down on opportunities to entrust your co-workers with the responsibility and respect to do their work in their own way. It will have a liberating and magnifying effect on people’s productivity and their trust in each other – and the goofing off will be limited to the good kind (having fun with co-workers).