3 myths about remote work blinding you to what your team really needs

Extreme adherence to one work model limits executives and undercuts their ability to grow and develop loyal, high-performing talented leaders.

Frequently, critics of remote work view everything through a binary argument. Remote automatically creates disconnection with colleagues. In-office automatically creates connection and the spontaneity that drives business outcomes.

I agree that being in-person with colleagues is beneficial to driving innovation, alignment and performance. However, can we stop pretending like there are no costs to the absolutes? Here are a few global statements I’ve seen mentioned in national media that I believe are wrong. Executives who buy into these myths are blocking their teams’ ability to thrive.

Myth #1: In-person is always better

There’s an argument to be made that remote work makes you a better all-around human. In my case, it makes me a better father, husband, friend, etc. Do I lose some of the connection I might once have had with my coworkers? Sure! Would I (and they) be more content with our life if that sacrifice was accompanied by deeper relationships with the ones I love most? Absolutely.

Those sacrifices of remote-first work models come with a benefit that’s more important and provides a higher value in the long run. Think of cooking: While you would never use a microwave to cook a Top Chef-worthy soufflé, most people are not going to cook a gourmet meal every night of the week. The microwave is great for some unique things that could never be made in an oven (Pinterest is full of mug treats/cakes, and consumer/packaged goods companies have caught on to this trend). Just so, in-person work and remote work each have their advantages and tradeoffs. In the remote work model, we can work faster but only get 80 percent of the way to those quality relationships (microwave), and when we have the opportunity to be in person, we can better pick up on cues, deepen relationships, and grow as a team (oven).

I once worked with someone identical to the character of Michael Scott from The Office. This colleague had a great heart and cared deeply about his work. He was a kind, caring and family-oriented person. At work, he performed at a super-high level, exceeding expectations and impressing the team. This colleague was quick to think about cross-functional support with other teams and often thought laterally across the organization – rare traits in a leader with his specialty.

However, this colleague’s in-person work presence made it difficult to share a 200-square foot space with him. The amount of time we wasted listening to his distracting conversation topics was mind-boggling. Remote work would have (and most likely has) eliminated the irritating qualities but would have shone a light on his good nature. This would have allowed his managers and executive team to see his best attributes first. The productivity benefits are shared among both the leader and his colleagues in an example like this.

Myth #2: Office buildings were designed to be filled, and remote-first models somehow are detracting from “civic duty” or supporting the local economy.

Nostalgia for 20th century office life detracts from the successes of the leadership teams who were forced to pivot by COVID. Their ability to transition to a thriving and high-performing model that accounted for COVID is a perfect example of the kinds of outcomes leaders who invest in themselves and their teams can achieve.

Business leaders can’t hold back the momentum created by economic trends. Commercial real estate experts have documented the changes that created our country’s glut of unused office space decades before the pandemic. Trends such as federal tax breaks, low interest rates and inflated demand from unprofitable startups are just a few of the factors that have contributed to this issue. Private enterprise leaders are wise to manage their burn rate and focus on the core priorities they need to help their teams succeed.    

Approximately 36.5 million people in the United States worked remotely at least five days a week as of early August 2022, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. Firms such as Automattic and Zapier see their pre-pandemic investments in these models provide additional flexibility, increased productivity and a competitive edge in hiring.

Myth #3: The “old way” of working and mentoring was better

You don’t need to hear it from me: The #MeToo movement was one highly-publicized example of a trend that shed light on areas of problematic organization culture that needed to be addressed.

In some ways, remote-first models have enabled and empowered workers and managers to thrive and cultivate the rich kinds of conversations that are necessary to help everyone grow outside their comfort zones. The generous managers willing to mentor and develop promising talent will find a way to do so; the location of the mentee and mentor’s actual desk won’t be a barrier.

I can think of some examples where a remote work set up helped me to be a better leader and put some of the “self-awareness” skills I’ve worked on with my own executive coach into practice. In one example, a high-performing leader on my team from a minority background is someone with whom I enjoy a close personal connection. We have shared music interests and I’ve come to know quite a bit about his family and personal life. During the first 18 months he was in his role, I would share feedback about how this leader was consistently exceeding expectations, but he never asked for a raise during our one-on-one conversation.

Surprised by this, I went outside my comfort zone to approach issues of racial equity and open the door to discuss the status of a raise. After working with a coach to be certain my approach was both thoughtful and direct, I asked whether there was anything about our workplace culture or his perception of workplace expectations preventing this leader from asking for what he deserved. His response was positive and he expressed his gratitude that his CEO/manager had raised the opportunity to discuss it. We both took the feedback from this conversation to heart.

While it was challenging to “get naked” when approaching the topic of racial equity, it ultimately was a growth opportunity for both of us. Working in a remote set-up helped to create extra space to address the sensitive subject and gave us time to be present, acknowledging the others’ needs, while being intentional about this conversation.

Extreme adherence to one work model limits executives and undercuts their ability to grow and develop loyal, high-performing talented leaders. Executives should stop worrying so much about investing in downtown office space and instead invest in long-term talent. Those who are seeking a competitive edge in the hiring process will ignore these myths or global statements perpetuated by some media commentators. Regardless of where you sit, focus on what your team needs and get to know them as individuals to make the investments that will pay off in the long term.