This post was originally published on LinkedIn

Wikipedia describes a zero sum game as:

In game theory and economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of the other participants.

It goes on to compare it with cutting a cake to share amongst a group. If you get to “play” first, you could choose to cut yourself a giant slice, but at some point, somebody is going to lose out and get a smaller slice or even no cake at all!

Why am I mentioning this? Well, I’ve seen a lot of posts recently, both here and on Twitter, about how companies are reacting to everybody working remotely during the Covid-19 crisis, and what will happen when it ends. Will we all “return to normal”? Will we all continue working from home? The answer of course, as with all things, is almost certainly “somewhere in between these two options”.

Myself, I have worked remotely on and off since 2006, so it’s something I’m used to. I know how to carve out time to work, and how to avoid distractions. For others having to do it for the first time, it hasn’t been as simple. Should you finish that task at work, or should you go and see what needs eating from the fridge? Perhaps the laundry needs folding? Or the bedroom needs hoovering? Distractions abound!

It’s not just distractions either - meetings can be more difficult via video, or just voice. The “always on” feeling of constantly being connected to mail gets even worse when nobody can see what you’re doing and will interrupt you on some communications tool to ask a question they would have waited with had they been able to look across the office and see you looked busy.

There are solutions to all of this of course. My point is that it’s a different way of working than going to the office every day, and it needs a slightly different skill set. It’s understandable that companies are concerned about this, but I think it’s largely unnecessary.

Now, onto the crux of this article …

A lot of the posts and comments I’ve seen about remote working over the last few months have been - in my opinion - more than a little toxic. These have included things like:

  • Employees complaining they are forced to leave their webcam on all the time to “prove they are working”.

  • Companies talking about reduced salaries for future remote positions.

  • Companies talking about how much they can save by employing remote workers outside of tech-hub cities, because of course the cost of living is lower, so people deserve a lower remuneration, right?

  • Companies talking about how employees will no longer need to commute, so that’s one less cost for them, ergo salaries should be lower.

All of this is, well, wrong. Just. So. Wrong.

The remote work can and should be a positive and rewarding experience for both the company and the employee, and attempting to use it to squeeze out a slightly higher profit margin for the owners/shareholders is not going to attract the best people.

Do not monitor your employees!

And by this I don’t mean of course let them do what they want, when they want, with no regard for the work that needs doing and any deadlines you may have.

What I mean is, treat them as though they were in the office. If you want status updates, book some time with them, have a daily or a weekly standup, or some other reporting routine.

Your employees wouldn’t like it if you stood behind them and stared over their shoulder all day while they were in the office, so why should it be OK to do the same thing virtually.

Will remote workers nip to the shop during the day sometimes to pick up a carton of milk? Sure. Will they take 5 minutes to throw some laundry in the machine? Probably. Will they catch up with the latest series on Netflix during their lunch break? Maybe.

Why would you care about any of this though? What you care about as an employer is whether they get the work done. If they don’t get the work done, and you have a suspicion it’s because they’re not focused working from home, then have that conversation - it’s important - and perhaps offer some ways to help, but do not assume everybody will suddenly stop doing their jobs just because they’re in a different location. It’s an incredibly demeaning assumption, and your employees don’t deserve it.

Don’t try and use remote work as an excuse to cut salaries!

If you’re paying X for a role today, you obviously think that role is worth X. So, why would that role suddenly be worth only 80% of X if the person doing it lives in a different state/county and is working remotely?

Sure, employees may save time and money on commutes, but this is a good thing. Saving 2 hours a day by not having to sit on germ-laden public transport or in a car with just one person belching pollutants into the atmosphere can only be regarded as a good thing, right?

I’m sure as an employer you don’t feel that anybody should have to have a long commute every day, so why would you penalise people that commute from the kitchen to the home-office every day? If they have more free time for family and relaxing, they’re going to be happier people. If they don’t have to sit on a bus for 50 minutes in the morning on the way to work, they’re likely to be in a much better mood when they fire up the computer and this will lead to better productivity.

Be happy with this trade-off!

Then there’s the home office…

At work, you have to provide decent equipment - chairs that aren’t going to cripple people sitting in them, perhaps height-adjustable desks, and a suitable working space. If everybody is remote you’re going to save a fortune here, but you should also make sure that your employees have access to decent equipment at home. Think about providing office furniture to remote workers that might need it as part of their package. It will be cheaper than giving them time off because their back has given out or paying for chiropractor appointments, and it will all be cheaper than renting the office space you would have needed before.

The bottom line (tl;dr)

If you’re an employer, a manager, or an HR department, please don’t try and use the excuse of remote working to micromanage employees or squeeze them on the salary front.

As the title of this post says - this is not a zero-sum game. A company does not lose out just because its employees get a win. Remote working can be a win for all involved!

Remote working can be a win for all involved!

If you’re not sure how not to go about this, here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. Trust the people working for you (without some compelling reason not to of course)

  2. Decide what a role is worth to you, and pay that, regardless of where the person is located, whether they commute to the office or work from home.

  3. Happy employees are more likely to be productive employees. Help them be happy!

Photo: Dimitri Otis