Face up to it: remote-work is simply not, if you have trust

by Paul Carder on March 24, 2016

by @paulcarder

A thought for the Easter weekend. You may be going away for a few days – have a great time! I’m staying on a small-holding on Dartmoor Devon, UK, with my youngest daughter, looking after piglets and chickens, and looking out for the cuckoo and barn owl.

Some would call the location remote. Miles from the nearest town. When it gets dark, it is dark. No light! Fantastic stars. And you can see the fox’s eyes a long way off.

But, of course, the house has internet and WiFi… which means, to me, it is not remote. I can call up countless applications, Skype being the most likely in my case, to see the face of almost anyone I am connected to. Most people use some form of video-conferencing tech…even my septuagenarian parents. I have seen a five year old using it quite happily to talk to his father in the USA.

So, as a PhD student looking at work, workplaces, and ‘other’ places where work happens, I am somewhat skeptical every time I see the term remote-work in the papers which I am wading through.

Here is a phrase in front of me now – “working remotely from the organisation”. In a peer-reviewed academic paper. What does that mean? I believe that it is implied that working in a different place from the organisation’s offices is “working remotely”. Try it yourself: enter the words “working remotely” into Google Scholar (select: exact phrase; anywhere in the article) you’ll get 4,320 results. Pick a few, and I’ll bet you find there is mostly an implication, but not an explanation, for why it is “remote”.

Charles Handy (1995) gave his view of the rules of trust. One of which being that “trust is not blind” and requires face-to-face interaction, which cannot happen to the same extent when working ‘remotely’. But that was 20 years ago, when teleconferencing was rare (I did my first at BP in 1997, when for the first five minutes we could see the ear, one shoulder and a gesticulating hand of one European manager, until he adjusted and we got the grainy picture of his face). Now, as mooted above, a 5-year old can do it, and the image is fast and clear.

If we can see someone’s face clearly, read their facial expressions (consciously and unconsciously, as we all do every day), converse freely, how “remote” are we really? I would argue, far less remote than we may be to someone on the other side of the same office, who sends an email instead of either picking up the phone or walking across the office to have a face-to-face chat (yes, we have all done that… even you!).

Trust is not diminished necessarily over distance, but by lack of familiarity. You can be “remote” standing in the same room, if you don’t know the other person.

Handy (1995) went on to say, “It is unwise to trust people whom you do not know well, whom you have not observed in action over time, and who are not committed to the same goals”. That applies regardless of contemporary technology.

Remote-work could therefore be said to be working with people you don’t know, you have not worked with (or known by reputation), and whom you are not sure are committed to the work you are doing.

Remote-work is little to do with distance (or place), and far more to do with ‘time served’ and reputation. It is all down to trust. If you trust someone, it doesn’t matter where they are.

If you don’t believe that, talk to my partners, Dr Jim Ware and Marcus Bowen. We have run our little business, globally, for 5 years…never once have we all been in the same place at the same time! “Remote-work” means nothing to us. Trust means everything.

Refs:

Handy, C. (1995). Trust and the Virtual Organization. Harvard Business Review.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sesha Sai March 25, 2016 at 4:42 am

Hi Paul, excellent post. I have my all directs working away from me in the same city. All my project managers/ leaders work from either construction site or client location. I spend a lot of time on field meeting clients, teams – so, am away from little supprt team i have in office. I always wondered how to explain this situation and what tools can i use to better manage my work and work relationships. Great thoughts in your article and i have a buch of ideas to take away. Enjoy your time in the not so remote place. Happy Easter.

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Paul Carder March 25, 2016 at 11:40 am

Thanks Sesha! It is a fascinating subject, isn’t it? There are many tools for managing remote teams – from leadership techniques, to management practices, to useful software. But I think one of the problems is that many managers (especially in technical disciplines) are trained in one technical field, but and become managers ‘by default’ eventually. Often without specific training (I know, I did!). How many managers get specific training in managing distributed teams? There is a lot of literature in the business/management field on this topic. But unless you go off to Business School, most managers never read it (or even know about it, probably).

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