What We Get Wrong About Remote Work

With the seriousness of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), I’m getting more questions about effective remote working.

Unfortunately, many businesses don’t have well thought-through policies and practices in place and, now that the pressure is on to do something quickly, are likely to focus on the wrong things.

I’m happy to say that all conversations I have now are about supporting work from home, but early in the crisis, and before it, I heard leaders focusing primarily on how to limit remote work. They asked that workers justify their desire to work from home and account for their time when they did.

Not only is this an uncaring mindset in the midst of a public health crisis, but it misses the benefits of good work-from-home policies and practices.


Corners cut in good times may go unnoticed, but in bad times, they show up in stark relief. One place I see this manifest is in leaders’ tendency to prioritize the health of the institution over the health of their workers. Of course doing so, they’re missing the point: An institution can’t be healthy if its people aren’t, as I’ll soon explain in more detail.

Still, this mindset is understandable — after all, controlling costs is an important part of running a business long-term. But enlightened leaders have known for a long time how counterproductive ignoring your workers can be, and leaders who take the long view, prioritize their employees well-being.

Richard Branson sums up this view like this: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

In moments like this, your top priority must be the health and safety of your workers. Not only is this the moral thing to do, but it’s also the right thing to do for the long term health of your company. Workers will remember if they felt sold out at this time, and they’ll also remember if they felt valued and cared for.

This pandemic will be disruptive to us all, with the economic and business impact likely being more severe and far reaching than the health impacts. Being in this with your people will make the recovery and mitigation work go better. As leaders, our job is always to bring people together and make them feel heard and considered. This is especially important now.

Given where we are now in the response to the pandemic, there is no longer any question that any job that does not require a physical on-site presence should be done from home.

Now we have to turn our attention to the business of the business, and do our best to keep the work of the organization moving forward. So our attention turns from work-from-home policies to practices and tools.

There is an opportunity in this crisis. Getting remote teaming right (which I’ll describe the basics of below) will help make co-located teams more effective as well when we are able to return to offices. Just like a muscle that gets stressed at the gym only to grow back stronger, our teams under the stress of sudden remote working can come back stronger.


Remote working programs often focus on prevention loss. An executive summed this situation up concisely to me recently when she said that she’d seen work-from-home policies frequently abused and that people were doing other things and “checking email a couple of times and calling it a work day.” So she was hoping for practices and techniques to monitor her people more closely.

While I sympathize with this concern, it’s based on the fallacy that busyness equals productivity.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in hard work and expect it from myself and the people on my teams. But I also believe in focusing on getting projects across the finish line rather than staying busy (what my friend Josh Seiden calls “Outcomes Over Output” in his new book by the same name).

If your remote-work program is focused on logistics and enforcement, then it’s focused on output and activity. But if your program is focused on getting the right things done, then it’s focused on outcomes and effectiveness.

In other words, you need to focus on quality rather than quantity of actions, and measure progress toward a goal rather than time at the keyboard. You can’t really measure the quantity of action even when people are in the office. You may see someone at their keyboard, but can’t really tell if they’re selling something on eBay or doing work and if they’re doing work you often can’t tell if it’s the right work or being done well.


The first steps to ensuring the right work is getting done are the same whether your team is remote or co-located. And that’s to:

  1. Create clarity with your team around why it exists — its mission.

  2. Create clarity on how the team will achieve this mission — its projects.

  3. Create practices that keep the team aligned and moving forward — its meetings, measures, and tools.

Step one is about leadership, doing what researchers Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall refer to as cascading meaning. As your team’s leader, you need to “deliberately, relentlessly, precisely, and pervasively” share information (Nine Lies About Work , HBR Press, 2019). That is, you need to let your team know the “why” of their work.

Step two is working with the team to create shared goals and projects that fit the mission and are both inspiring and measurable.

Step three is also team-driven. To keep your team moving forward, you need to implement practices that help the team get their work done, that is, creating the roles, meeting cadences, and tracking systems that keep them focused on the right stuff.

These three steps will help you and your team focus on outcomes instead of outputs and give you as the team leader a set of tools and measures to stay focused on the right things.

Once you have a shared mission and clarity on how your team will achieve the mission and implement best practices to keep everyone moving forward, team members will find it easier to stay productive and to hold each other accountable to the work and to each other no matter where they sit.

There are some tried and tested tools and processes (Slack, G Suite, OKRs, Kanban Boards, standup meetings, etc.) that will help you achieve these three goals. However, in my long experience, it is best to apply new tools and practices sparingly and carefully. Rather than adopting a process blindly, adopt them with the above three principles in mind, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a great remote (and in-person) team.

Let’s help each other in these difficult times. Please leave your questions or tips below.

I’m teaching a free webinar on Tuesday 3/25 that will outline a fast and efficient method for setting up new remote teams. Register here (if you can’t make the call I’ll send you a recording).

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