The Real Reason Remote Work Fails

We need to raise our expectations of both managers' responsibility to connect with teammates and the expected results of contributors who choose to do remote work.

Ten days ago, Elon Musk told staff, “Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla.”

Ordering people to stay in the office is an option, but I don’t think it’s a realistic one. Remote work is here to stay, and any company can make it a permanent element of growth and success, if they work at it.

Last week, at two of the companies where I am on leadership teams, we addressed real-time examples of when remote work fails. The conversations centered around three people who are no longer employed with either organization, all of whom had “other jobs.” Our first issue was discovered on Linkedin. A week after being let go, the manager of a key territory updated their profile to reflect that they had been working full time in a competitive job for over a year. The manager had been under-performing and, in hindsight, given too many “last chances” prior to being terminated.

Next, we discussed having recently parted ways with two teammates who had openly declared side hustles. All three of these individuals were talented and had significant potential, yet all failed to either take the initiative or find enough time to make an impact within their established roles. None of these potentially valuable teammates had managers who led them to be exceptional or to a more timely exit. The engagements lingered over a year, producing mediocre results.

I am not interested in decoding any possible deception or seeking to understand their goals, as that wouldn’t solve the true issue. However, I am certain that had their managers been more successful at creating deeper connections, there would have been an opportunity to better align their career goals with their primary jobs and enhance everyone’s chance to win. That’s a difficult and essential effort, especially when working with remote teams, and it goes to the heart of the problem Musk outlined—how do you create a deep connection when you never meet someone face-to-face?

My goal is to enable leaders to create communities where remote workers can excel and lead and for that to happen we need to raise the bar. The expectations of a managers’ responsibility to connect with teammates and the expected results of contributors who choose to do remote work should both be raised. I believe, so deeply, that solving the remote work puzzle is critical to organizations success that I wrote a book about it—Remote Leadership: How to Accelerate Achievement and Create a Community in a Work-from-Home World. Remote work can be extraordinarily beneficial for an individual contributor, a manager and an entire organization, if (as Elon also implies) that work is exceptional across the board. Defining and managing to high standards is foundational to the role of leading a growing organization. Doing so requires that as leaders we hold our teams and ourselves accountable and that we put into place programs and processes that replace or enhance what we lose when we’re no longer face-to-face so we can take advantage of the extraordinary gains remote work can offer.

In a growth culture, there are inherently more challenges involved when managing remote teams. In the office, managers can see effort in a way that differs from the hybrid world. The type of effort that surpasses prompt emails responses and kept deadlines; they are able to assess more of the intangible, the subtle assets that, in my experience, greatly contribute to success. The trust that develops faster “in-person” can be used as currency to give someone a bit more time if they are struggling to be exceptional. I have seen remote teammates fail at higher rates and I believe it is often based on a manager’s lack of access to those subtle determinations.

Tools and training must be provided to enable our managers to lead by finding the intangibles needed for them to act decisively and with confidence . A manager’s ability to facilitate deeper connections combined with the discipline to hold their teams accountable is the ticket to success. This only happens in environments where the bar is set to expect the exceptional and leaders have the skills to get their teams performing at a high level. Leaders at all levels need to be exceptional at asking deep, probing questions, listening without prejudice and sharing their own similarly personal experiences instead of focusing on telling their teams what to do and how to do it. My partners and I also discussed accountability in the future. It’s easy to blame the employee, but the responsibility lies with those at the top. As demonstrated by our recent experiences, the heart of the issue is not whether or not people have multiple professional commitments. What is relevant is all three examples I shared were of talented and capable people who were not managed to being exceptional and moreover less than exceptional performance was accepted for too long. The responsibility to solve or resolve each instance lies squarely with leadership. Regardless of what Elon says or does, remote work is here to stay and our ability, as leaders, to integrate it will make or break our ability to succeed.


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