Working Remotely Isn't a Benefit, a Privilege, or a Right. It's a Side-Effect

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As more and more employees, contractors, and team members do more and more of their work outside of the traditional job site, a key question for company leaders is the definition of “telecommuting.” What does it mean to make this an option in your organization?

The best way to understand what telework is starts with understanding what it isn't. Having employees conduct their job responsibilities from home or their favorite coffeeshop is not a job perk. It's also not something be dolled out as a reward. And it's not a guaranteed condition of employment. Instead, the ability to work remotely is a consequence of the modern economy. It's what happens when more and more people become information workers, and information is accessible from just about anywhere.

Probably the most common misperception of telecommuting is that it's a benefit that employers can offer to make their company more attractive. Job postings read “flexible schedules” or “work from home.” Recruiters attempt to differentiate their company as one that has an attractive retirement package, competitive pay, beer Friday, and also telecommuting.  But that’s not the definition of a workplace benefit. The rest of these examples are all incentives that have nothing to do with trust.

Likewise, employers who characterize remote work as something offered for good behavior aren’t thanking someone for their contribution. They are revealing a lack of trust. They are saying in effect “we don't trust you to work unless you are watched, but since you did a good job we'll let you work without being watched for a little while.”

This is the same reason that being a telecommuter isn't a right. You do have certain guarantees as an employee in the United States, such as those defined in the Fair Labor Standards Act, various civil rights legislation, and your state’s workforce commission. But you can't work wherever you want. Your employer can mandate the location where you put in your time, and broadly speaking, your only option is to accept it or find a new job.

So what is telecommuting, really? It's a natural consequence of an increasingly technological society and the growth of the information economy. If you're a knowledge worker—if you primarily provide value thanks to what you know and how you manipulate data and communicate with others—you can likely do your work from the beach. You don't need to drive into work anymore. You can log into work from anywhere and at any time.

Employers who recognize this shift certainly have a competitive advantage over those who don't, and will be more attractive to potential candidates. But that still doesn’t mean it's a benefit. Rather, it’s evidence that the most fundamental values are still the most elusive: respect and trust for individuals. There’s no way you can have telecommuters if you don’t have respect and trust for your team. But that should be no surprise to great leaders, who have always understood that these principles are essential to success.

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