Remote Work is About Trust, Not Rules

The SHRM Talent Management Conference & Exposition in Chicago this week revealed that, while in many ways the HR profession is progressing, some of the old stink remains.
remote work

Did you know that, for most people, the standard, most ergonomically appropriate desk height for working while seated is about 30 inches?

For the average person, that allows a roughly 90-degree angle to form along your arms while typing at a computer — which is recommended to prevent common office worker maladies like carpel tunnel syndrome.

And, did you know that, in most cases, the kitchen table you have at home is not ergonomically sound for people to type at a computer?

Why am I boring you with these ostensible facts? More important, why do they matter?

The answer to the first question is easy. I learned these ergonomic tidbits while attending the Society for Human Resource Management’s Talent Management Conference & Exposition, which visited Chicago this week.

The answer to the second requires more explanation — and a dose of skepticism.

On Tuesday I attended a SHRM talk on remote work by David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, an HR outsourcing and consulting firm based in Norwalk, Connecticut. The topic of remote and flexible work is of significant importance to Talent Economy, as the arrangements are proliferating in the working world thanks to enhancements in technology and employees’ desire to cut down on arduous work-related commutes.

Moreover, as companies continue to grapple with the challenge of finding talent amid a persistent skills gap, considering the possibility of official remote work arrangements allows companies to take geography out of the equation, thus allowing them to consider candidates outside of their central market.

Lewis titled his session “The Home-Based Worker Revolution — How to Effectively Select and Manage this Unique Workforce.” Using the word “revolution” led me to believe this talk would provide an overview of the progressive advantages of offering remote work to employees. It also led me to believe that part of the message would be to extinguish the outdated attitudes and traditional corporate stigmas around remote work.

But within the first five minutes of his presentation, Lewis teased the audience with the bit on the ergonomics of desk height. I immediately conjured up the image of Toby from “The Office,” the sitcom’s quintessentially dowdy HR manager who was written to represent everything wrong with the profession.

To be fair, Lewis’ point on desk height, although antiquated, was valid: If you’re going to allow people to work from home, the company may be at risk of workers’ compensation claims if they’re injured working at a space that is not ergonomically sound.

However, this perceived liability preceded a laundry list of others Lewis presented over the course of an hour and 15 minutes. According to him, remote work arrangements often fail because there aren’t policies in place to ensure that:

  • Remote workers aren’t spending time during the workday changing loads of laundry or conducting other personal business.
  • Workers aren’t using remote work as a way to forgo paying for formal child care during the day.
  • Workers aren’t working while watching television on the couch or working in a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi.
  • Workers have a separate home office free of at-home distractions and incorporate technology that not only allows workers in different environments to communicate, but in some instances also tracks workers’ computer movements to ensure they’re working during the work day.
  • Companies aren’t allowing poor-performing workers who require constant over-the-shoulder monitoring to work remotely.

Some of these points are absolutely valid — but some miss the mark.

In fact, in a lot of ways Lewis’ long list of stingy rules around remote work speaks to everything that’s good and bad about the HR profession today.

On the one hand, companies need to have a foundation of controls in place in the form of formal HR to ensure the culture is compliant and productive.

On the other hand, in working to establish such controls, HR fails to understand which metrics are truly important and is sometimes overbearing in its proclivity to create and enforce rules instead of building an environment where such rules are unnecessary.

For instance, take the idea that controls need to be in place to ensure remote workers aren’t “changing loads of laundry” or conducting other personal business during working hours. This is classic, old-fashioned thinking.

If I am working from home, spend three hours on focused work and the next five minutes popping my laundry in the dryer, does that make me an unproductive employee? Or maybe I’m a software developer banging out code at 3 a.m. while I watch movies in the background. Or maybe I’m a sales representative taking client calls while driving my kids to an afternoon soccer practice, but my computer mouse isn’t moving indicating the perceived activity of “working.”

If the quality of the work in these situations is poor, then yes, a performance conversation is necessary and remote work is on the table for reconsideration. But if the quality of the work remains satisfactory, then … who cares?

The faulty assumption here is that working in a company’s office makes workers more productive, or that a formal office environment is free of distraction. This is also an example of HR and the old corporate guard focusing too much on the wrong measures: time and place spent working as opposed to quality of work completed.

As company leaders, many of these potential problems Lewis described are not remote working problems. They’re hiring problems. If you’re not properly hiring people that you trust are capable of having the correct judgment to do the job, no matter the context or location of their environment, then you’re hiring the wrong people.

Never mind not granting the poor performer who needs to be constantly micromanaged in the office the ability to work from home. Why did you hire that person to begin with? And is it productive to keep them around? These are hard questions, but ones that transcend the tactical issue of remote work.

The bottom line is companies need to learn to trust the people they hire, and if they don’t trust these people to have the good judgment to be productive workers, they shouldn’t hire them. Where and how people work matters for many roles, and Lewis was correct to point out many of the nuances that companies need to consider.

But, at the same time, too much of the message smacked of the old-fashioned HR stink, of strict rules aimed to control people, of fears that are more fiction than reality. In today’s talent economy, that stink needs to go away.

Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email