Building Work-from-Home Trust and Dismantling Workplace Surveillance
I follow Firstbase CEO and founder Chris Herd on Twitter. Firstbase outfits remote workers with the physical tools they need to work from home, and Chris is an outspoken fan of remote work as a solution to many of our systemic problems, environmental to social. Chris tweeted this tweet a few days ago:
I immediately zoomed in on the third line: over-communicate–something that might seem unnecessary but which I actually believe is key for working from home. Then I started thinking.
All work is a contract between employer and employee, but work from home is a special version of that contract. Instead of exchanging a certain amount of labor for a certain amount of money, you’re agreeing to that exchange in the absence of direct surveillance.
Boy do I believe in a world with less surveillance.
But entering in this work-from-home, limited surveillance contract requires two things.
Employers must trust their employees.
Employees must frequently demonstrate their ability to continue to produce deliverables, whether work is done during traditional work hours or not.
Let’s focus on the question of trust first. My hope is that this ongoing experiment we’ve been forced into as a result of COVID-19 has demonstrated that it is much more possible to be effective employees while working from home than many people previously believed, but it is still true that many employers don’t trust their employees to actually complete their work from home. Will the temptation of TV, the refrigerator, Facebook, children prove too distracting and cause workers to neglect their tasks and leave work unfinished? There are certain groups of people who bear the bulk of this suspicion. White employers often imagine that people of color, especially Black people, are ineffective workers–lazy–without direct supervision.
So the first part of this remote work contract is to trust your employees from the beginning, before the work begins. Go into the work from home arrangement assuming that your employees will meet if not exceed your expectations. If you don’t, you are buying into the assumption that humans are inherently lazy unless they are surveilled all the time. I could get into all the Foucauldian reasons why this is a violent assumption to make, but I’ll only say here that I want to live in a world that is driven by self-motivation, not by policing. Trust your employees, and be extra cautious to trust all your employees–not just the white people.
(I’ll also note that, as a long-time remote worker, I’ve found that the pressure to work effectively and produce results is actually must strong when working from home because you don’t have any other “proof” that you’re working).
But I do believe that work-from-home employees can help boost trust and promote a healthy relationship with their supervisor by being an effective communicator–and this is the second part of the contract.
Think of it this way. If you’re working alone on a big and consuming project from an office, you’ll likely have multiple times during a day when you can casually chat with someone about the work you’re doing–thus giving you a chance to demonstrate that you’re making headway on a deliverable. Even if you aren’t discussing it with anyone, your co-workers can see that you’re in the office theoretically working. However, if you’re doing the big and consuming project from home, then you could conceivably go hours or even days with out discussing it with anyone. Without letting your employers know what you’re up to, it’s possible that they might conclude that you’ve decided to go on an unannounced vacation.
Without the “water cooler” conversations, you need to communicate with your team members much more frequently to let them know what you are doing. Instead of waiting to show off a deliverable when it’s finished, check in at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of each project. If it’s a multi-day project, consider checking in more frequently.
These check-ins need not be big inbox clogs. A simple one-line email will suffice. Consider asking a teammate for advice mid-way through a project. You can send an email reminding your supervisor when you plan to finish the project and how to prepare next steps. Pick a communication channel–Slack, email, Asana, text, whatever–and use it.
If possible, avoid scheduling unnecessary meetings (which typically waste time if they don’t have a specific goal). Instead, check-in using a written communication line or by phone, if that is your company culture.
In sum, employers trust all your employees from the beginning, especially people of color. Employees, make sure to check-in about your work at the beginning, middle, and end of projects to boost trust.