Remote Work

There’s a valuable article by Ed Zitron on why corporate managers fear a remote work future.(1) I’ve been aware of “virtual companies” since the 1990s, and Zitron himself has run one for much of he last decade. Simply, they work, at a much lower overhead than traditional brick and mortar organizations. Lower costs in turn can benefit employees, shareholders and customers — but not necessarily the managers in charge.

Zitron’s point is that many managers aren’t actually productive. That is, they don’t produce anything. Their role is to nag (his word) others into producing stuff. In a digital world, in which there’s a record of everything that happens, it’s harder to get by with being non-productive or taking credit for others’ work. The demand by these managers that people come back into a central office is based on a combination of ego and fear.

That’s the one nit I have with his argument. The digital record exists in the office as well as out. The only difference between in-office and remote work is that with the latter, people actually look at emails and attachments to see what others are doing or have completed. Software for managing workflow through an organization makes that even easier. One leader can in fact manage a larger number of direct reports.

That brings us to what I feel is one of the most compelling arguments for virtual companies. In addition to losing real estate costs, they can also lose layers of bureaucracy. In fact, all of the virtual companies I know have relatively flat hierarchies, with perhaps three tiers from bottom to top instead of the eight plus found in traditional companies. The more efficient structure allows for better compensation at all levels, and makes it harder for “deadwood” to survive on political skills alone.

There are some jobs that can’t be virtualized. Zitron talks about blue collar work, and he’s right but a bit myopic. Any job that requires expensive tools or personal contact will require a centralized work. The obvious examples are chemical labs and operating rooms. We certainly don’t want to see people working with radioactive materials at home or performing heart surgery on the dining room table.



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