Remote vs. On-Site Time Perception

I read this very interesting article on GigaOm last month and have been digesting it ever since.  Although I don’t necessarily think remote workers are any more (or less) productive than on-site workers, Ms. Laidlaw makes a fantastic point about the productivity mindset of remote workers.  Any company that has avoided hiring remote workers should take it into consideration.

First, though, the traditional reasons to hire remotely:

Less overhead.
Can hire best qualified, not best located.
May have lower salary requirements based on cost-of-living.
Video collaboration bridges final communication gap.
Better for the planet.

Next, traditional reasons against:

Lack of oversight.
Lack of teamwork.

Although a remote worker myself, I think I have a great relationship with my team…and of course half of them are remote, too!  As for oversight, rather than cite my own experiences, let me expound on Laidlaw’s reason this isn’t an issue:  Perception of Time (paraphrase)

She, a remote worker, had to work onsite at a client’s one day a week.  Quoting her:

Like many offices, people in this place often strike up conversations that last for twenty minutes or more about topics that aren’t work related. Between commuting, lunch breaks, and a requirement to be on-site all day, every day, the lines between work and down-time blur for the in-office worker.

Whereas I see the seven or so hours I spend at my desk as work time. Someone’s paying me for that time.  And the moment it’s done, I’m free: I don’t have to sacrifice my time to commuting, so I can turn around and start to do whatever I like.  So when some of my colleagues started a half-hour conversation about television shows the other day, my thought was, “guys, I’ve only got seven hours here!”

This self-imposed “work so I can finish” is certainly a plus.  Now, this isn’t to downplay the many positives of an onsite environment, simply to say that there is a huge factor that levels the playing field.  (Add to this consistent use of video collaboration and IM…)

She makes a strong statement which, while true, may be a little too strong:

But I think the workplace itself superimposes certain inescapable conditions onto the work arrangement — conditions that preclude the kind of productivity that remote workers can achieve.

For example, an office is like a community. If the people in it don’t interact, you wind up with ghettos, factions and mistrust, rather than openness and harmony.

Yes, but if you do interact, and can keep your interactions down to 20% of the time spent at work (see my last post), there should be no difference in productivity levels.  (Theoretically.  I’ll admit I haven’t seen a study on this.)

I think in reality the biggest issue for the remote worker is time management instead of time perception.  A 20+ year remote worker noted in the comments how many days he puts in 12+ hours because the line between work and home are blurred.  I would also bet that he has the occasional day where he’s only productive for 5 hours as well.  Productivity-wise, it’s a wash or slightly on the higher end.  Exhaustion-wise, whether from catching up from a short day or trying to recover from a long one, well, that’s tough.

At VSee we’ve done something that I think helps keep the “clock time” more consistent.  Due to the number of employees, we all need to put the times we expect to be “on the clock” into a shared calendar.  This was done primarily so if someone needs something from you and sees you’re not present on VSee or our IM, they can check that calendar to know when you will be available.  The added benefit is that now I have time boundaries that, although self-imposed, compel me to start and stop at least *near* the calendar time while maintaining the remote-worker flexibility.

So, whether you’re a remote worker or a company looking to hire one, add that tool to your toolbelt.  The teamwork and oversight likely won’t be the issues.  Phones, video, email, chat, time perception and project deadlines will take care of that.  But adding that element of boundaries to the work day is an excellent additional support system to ensure they can maintain that productivity every day.

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