By Dr. Geoff Smart
Don’t come back to work.
Instead, move forward in leading your company and managing your career by embracing remote work, at least to some extent.
Even though ghSMART has been remote-only for 26 years now, it never fully registered with me how enthusiastic I am about remote work until I started hearing that many companies are forcing workers to come back into offices every day.
Prior to the COVID pandemic, “Work where you want” was a concept practiced by fewer than 10% of companies in my experience.
During the pandemic, basically 100% of companies that could function with people working remotely shifted to that mode out of necessity. I thought that mode was going to stick, and that we were going to see the landscape of cities shift from “places people go to work every day” to “places people go to work sometimes, eat, shop, learn, and play.” But, it seems I was wrong.
Admittedly, not all work can be done remotely. Landscaping businesses or nail salons or factories that require humans to use their hands to do work need people to show up in person to perform a task.
But there is a large and growing group of people who don’t produce work with their bodies. They work with their minds. This trend is not new. In 1959, Peter Drucker coined the term “Knowledge Work” in his book The Landmarks of Tomorrow, and then “Knowledge Workers” in The Effective Executive a year later to describe this group. In 2019, Gartner estimated that there are over 1 billion knowledge workers in the world, out of 7.75 billion people (13%).
What’s going to happen post-pandemic?
My guess is that only 25% of companies will embrace remote working (which is better than 10% but worse than 100%).
What is the argument against remote work?
The argument against remote work is that people need to be physically co-located to do their best work. They just do, the argument goes.
But a cursory check of recent research offers evidence that suggests the opposite is true.
What is the argument for remote work?
The argument for remote work is higher financial and operating performance and productivity for companies, and higher job satisfaction and life satisfaction for workers.
A 2015 Stanford University study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics showed a 13% performance increase from remote working — 9% from working more minutes per shift and 4% from more productivity. So that’s great news for the 16,000-person company they studied, but what about the workers? The workers reported higher work satisfaction, and their attrition rates fell by 50%.
That research is consistent with my personal experience. ghSMART was founded in 1995, just as technology advances like email and the cell phone made remote work much more practical. So, we have always embraced remote work, not because of any brilliance on the part of our founder, but because it has simply always been possible and the best solution for our team.
Here are some myths about remote work and realities from our experience at ghSMART.
Myth #1: “You can’t build a good culture if people work remotely.” ghSMART currently enjoys a 4.8/5.0 Glassdoor rating of its culture (which is #1 among its industry peers of top consulting firms), and for 2020 and 2021 won Vault’s #1 spot for overall employee satisfaction among all consulting firms.
It’s not like we never interact in person. Client projects, all-firm summits, and committee meetings and specific work groups meet in person from time to time.
But, nobody at our firm is commuting over an hour and a half each way, as a family friend recently told me he did pre-Covid. Sitting in his car for 20 minutes to rush to take the train from Suburbville 45 minutes into the City, then getting an Uber from the train station to ride another 20 minutes in heavy traffic to work, to hop out, and take another 5 minutes to run through the lobby, badge into the elevator, and take it to the 25th floor. That sounds absolutely miserable.
I think a good culture begins with doing what’s best for people, and making people commute to offices every day does not seem to be in anybody’s best interest. Harvard Professor Ashley Whillans’ book Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time & Live a Happier Life offers ample evidence to suggest that people are much happier when they spend their time doing things of their choosing. Commuting does not make anybody’s top 10 list of favorite things to do every day.
Myth #2: “People don’t work as hard remotely as they do in an office.” That has not been my experience. I have friends who work at top firms in consulting and finance who admit that they spend a vast part of the day doing personal tasks remotely, even though their bodies are located in an office.
And for ghSMART colleagues, we know how productive everybody is because we transparently share revenue information. Without divulging private financial information, ghSMART’s revenue per consultant is significantly higher than its industry peers that do not allow remote working. I believe that if you have a transparent culture where performance is measured, you can pay people according to the value they are creating, and they will be incented to work productively and not lollygag — even if they are working remotely. But, I guess companies that have not yet figured out how to pay employees based on a scorecard of measurable results and instead pay based on hours worked — they should be worried about lollygagging anyway, both in the office or for people who work remotely.
Myth #3: “You have to be in person to learn from others.” That sentence came out of the mouth of a senior executive I met recently who works in a traditional industry.
Really? We at ghSMART have had great success with new people shadowing senior people on video calls, conducting coffee chats with colleagues with diverse skills and backgrounds globally, reading stuff on our intranet and watching short videos online, and participating in roundtable Q&A discussion groups — all remotely.
We do in-person learning, too. But, my gosh, how absurd to suggest that your body has to be physically somewhere specific to learn. For knowledge workers, it’s your mind that has to be connected with other minds to learn! And today, that is most effectively, efficiently, and cost-effectively done remotely with the help of technology (with some in-person mixed in for good measure).
What’s the bottom line?
The bottom line is that if you run or own a company, please continue to experiment with allowing your people to work remotely at least some of the time.
And if you are a jobseeker, consider putting more energy into joining a firm that embraces remote work. I believe this is the future of work, both because of the demonstrable benefits to companies in operating and financial performance and the benefits to workers from having more control over their time.
ghSMART is hiring.
If you want to learn how to advise influential CEOs, boards, and government leaders, work with the most talented, diverse, and goodhearted people ever assembled in one place (remotely!), and have control over your time, please contact email@example.com to schedule a career conversation.
Thanks for reading, and please share this article with anybody who you think is in a position to help their organization step forward into the future!
Dr. Geoff Smart is Chairman & Founder of leadership advisory firm ghSMART, which exists to help leaders amplify their positive impact on the world.
In 2021, Vault named ghSMART the #1 best consulting firm to work for in overall colleague satisfaction (as well as client interaction and challenge). ghSMART has published four bestselling leadership books: Who: The A Method for Hiring (by Smart and Street, #1 globally in the category of “hiring”), Leadocracy: Hiring More Great Leaders (Like You) into Government (by Smart), Power Score (by Smart, Street, and Foster), and The CEO Next Door (by Botelho and Powell).Geoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, subscribe to his blog at geoffsmart.com/smartthoughts, or follow him at linkedin.com/in/drgeoffsmart or on Twitter at GeoffreySmart.