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Who Should Work Remotely?

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Hint: It has nothing to with their level within the organization or relative seniority.

As we slowly emerge from the pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home orders, organizational leaders need to make difficult decisions on who will—and won’t—be required to return to the office. With study after study showing that most employees are not interested in returning full time, pre-pandemic policies won’t cut it.

Before Covid-19, it was uncommon to have formal remote, hybrid and distributed work policies for the majority of workers. However, what was common was for executives to have much more flexibility, working in the office just a few days a week, with some working remotely all of the time or even residing in a different city than where the organization was headquartered.

Today, executives are realizing that they must evaluate how much flexibility employees at all levels of the organization should have going forward. While it’s obvious that all roles can’t be remote (think emergency room workers or store cashiers), there has to be careful consideration into remote work models and policies – who can work from home, how can they remain accountable for their efforts and what can be done to address issues of fairness among the employee groups.

Let’s start with the question as to whether one’s level within the organization is the right way to look at who can work more or less flexibly. This approach isn’t without its merits – it does nominally connect the potential for flexibility to jobs, not individuals, and that’s often the right starting place for the flexibility conversation. It’s hard, even legally tricky, to say whether Michael or Susan can work with more or less flexibility as to location and timing – it’s far more straightforward to talk about software engineers vs paralegals.

That said, your level within the organization is not the same thing as your job. Think of a CFO, who proved over the last year that quarter close processes can be supervised virtually, versus a Chief Supply Chain Officer, who still had to hop on a plane to troubled supply sites. Same level of the organization, very different demands for physical presence.

And when we get to the fairness question…things get really tricky. Taking that same lens— mapping out the actual demands of what’s in an individual’s job—the actual work of many leaders doesn’t necessarily lend itself naturally to a high degree of remote work. Leadership may require collaborative innovation or strategy efforts; it may have a high degree of influence needed; and certainly many leadership roles qualify as unstructured knowledge work—where the tasks themselves are difficult to even define.

None of these factors make the job more likely to be successful in a remote environment – they actually make it less likely. In contrast, the structured and routinized work performed by workers further down the chain is far better suited to the remote context.

So why are most organizations far more flexible with how the work of leadership gets performed than that of other roles where flexibility might actually make more sense? The answer is, unfortunately, a set of implicit biases:

• The belief that lower-level work must be more closely observed to be productive.

• The notion that flexibility is a perk to be earned.

• The idea that leaders are somehow better suited to be responsible about being productive than others.

Each of these three ideas has its own problems. No. 1 is antiquated—dating back to practices implemented during the early Industrial Revolution. At that time—a full two centuries ago now—factory owners were engaged in a ham-fisted change management exercise to transition agricultural workers used to setting their own working practices into more mechanized work, often by bosses literally watching over their shoulders.

Idea No. 2 seems more benign but has impacts that are problematic. Underpinning the notion that flexibility is something you earn by moving up the corporate ladder is a grab-bag of unfounded assumptions—including the belief in a corporate ladder in an age of “jungle-gym” careers, and a lack of empathy to understand that workers may have critical care-giving responsibilities at any career stage.

Finally, idea No. 3 is rooted in classist bias. Stepping back from one’s own organization, few of us would actually assert that your level of responsibility at work actually has an effect on your moral fiber—so how can we assert that lower-level workers won’t give their all—no matter from where they work?

Examining some of these deep beliefs and biases is a worthwhile exercise for any organization. The best and most authentic place to anchor decisions about work flexibility is, of course, the work itself. What does a job ask for? Is a job tied to a place? Does a job operate in a certain way in a team, or more independently? How well-defined (or undefined) is the work?

These are the questions that will get you to an equitable, inclusive picture of how your organization’s world of work should change today…and tomorrow.


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