What I Learned While Remote Working at Grandma’s House

I’m just back from Spring Break, during which I joined my wife and daughter on the trip to see grandma and grandpa in Los Angeles. While they went to the zoo and to play mini-golf, I was working.

It was the classic scenario for remote working — I was in a familiar location (the in-laws’ house), with fast internet and no childcare responsibilities during the work day courtesy of my wife and her parents.

Pretty much this exact scenario is described in this great post on remote working policies by Fog Creek which has a useful list of tips and approaches for the worker and the employer.

So how did it go for me? Pretty well, and here are the things that I learned in the process.

Continue reading “What I Learned While Remote Working at Grandma’s House”

The Best Places to Find Your Next Remote Job

So you’ve decided to join the movement of the future and look for a remote working job. But where do you find one? Craigslist won’t help, and most of the big job listing sites start by asking you where you want to work (as a result I imagine a lot of people are accidentally looking for employment in the town of Remote, Oregon).

But there are an increasing number of good sites to start looking on, and from my months of research here are the best options I’ve found. I’d love your feedback and suggestions to update this list with resources I’ve missed.

Continue reading “The Best Places to Find Your Next Remote Job”

In Praise of the Four-Day Week

In 1995 I was in Dublin working my first job after getting my Masters. I was writing what was then called computer-based training, which would grow up to become online education. I was helping to produce courseware to teach people how to use Microsoft Office products, which even then were bloated and less than intuitive.

Outside of office hours, I was also trying to break into freelance journalism, contributing arts and features pieces to the Irish Times newspaper and other publications. Dublin is full of good writers — you could throw a stone into any pub and it would hit someone better than than me — so it was a struggle, but I really enjoyed crafting 800 smart words about a TV show or movie that would be completely forgotten the day after the paper came out.

The day job wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing, but the steady pay was welcome, and my fellow employees were a nice bunch to hang around with, and I even enjoyed the bike ride across town to get to work. But after a few months there, I was being worn down and couldn’t find the time or inclination to work on as much freelance work as I wanted. So I had an idea that seemed to make sense to me, and I was too young to know how unusual a request it might be at the time.I asked to have every Friday off (and take 80% of my salary).

I was smart enough to ask straight after a favourable performance review, and for whatever reason they said yes, for a trial period.

The new arrangement worked out brilliantly, and I ended up staying at the company for much longer than I would have otherwise. Aware that I didn’t want to leave any of my colleagues in the lurch while I was off, I was definitely more than 80% as productive as I had been, and when taxes and the small amount of money I got from my extra freelance work were taken into account, I ended up with more than 80% of my former income.

And I got Fridays to myself. I’d go to press screenings for new films, work on pitching stories, and drift around Dublin bookshops, cafés and bars (a regular afternoon favourite habit was to sit reading the paper in the Stag’s Head pubarmed with a coffee and a gin and tonic). I had a long weekend every week — I was happy, I appreciated the great gift my employers had given me, and I returned to the day job every Monday rested and ready to work hard.

Not Working Just Works

I’m not the only one to discover that four-day weeks have many benefits. This recent excellent video from The Atlantic shows the business and personal benefits of the approach at Treehouse (ironically an online education firm).

Online project management tool Basecamp work four-day weeks over the summer, and their experience of productivity is the same as mine:

“In general, the same amount of stuff gets done in four days than in five, mostly because when you have less time, you tend to compress stuff out that doesn’t matter,” says Basecamp CEO Jason Fried in a Fast Company interview. “We don’t feel like we’re losing a lot of output; maybe 5%.”

It’s not just small firms — KPMG and tax services firm Ryan are two multinationals who have adopted similar flexible approaches. The same Fast Company article reports that after they started four-day weeks, Ryan’s employee turnover rate dropped from 30% to 11%, revenue and profits almost doubled, client satisfaction scores reached an all-time high, and the firm has received multiple “best place to work” awards.

For a time the state of Utah put workers on a compressed work schedule, with staff working four 10-hour days with every Friday off. The Guardian looked at the results:

Eight out of 10 employees liked the four-day week and wanted it to continue. Nearly two-thirds said it made them more productive and many said it reduced conflict at home and work. Only 3% said it made childcare harder. Workplaces across the state reported higher staff morale and lower absenteeism.

40 Hours or 32?

Based on my own experience, and that of Basecamp and Treehouse, I’d say it’s worth just pulling the band-aid off all in one go and only working 32 hours. It’s debatable if there’s really any productivity benefit in the extra hours — it’s filled with what Jason Fried calls the stuff ‘that doesn’t matter’.

So it’s good for employees and good for the organization. It works for tech firms on crazy deadlines, large consulting firms and state government. And why aren’t we doing this, already? As with a reluctance to adopt remote working, the reasons we’re still clinging to the old ways aren’t that great, but what is great is that more and more organizations are showing the vision required to embrace the four-day week.

Remote work isn’t just for digital nomads, it’s also for boring people like me

I love reading stories of intrepid people living as digital nomads, living in exotic places while running their businesses, or freelancing their way around the world.

Aussie digital nomad James Clark has a great list of resources and links to the blogs of other folks doing a similar thing, which often revolves doing web-related or at least web-enabled work that doesn’t depend on being in a particular location to fund their living in relatively affordable countries (often in south-east Asia).

Having travelled reasonably widely, lived in three countries and even written a travel book about my adventures, I have a great deal of time for people prepared to head out on their own and use remote working to travel. But now I’m at a different stage in my life, I see how remote work is also key to ensuring quality of life even if you’re not going anywhere.

Nicole at Buffer recently wrote a great article about what their remote working structures meant for their team (and the team’s families), and what really stood out was how brilliantly mundane a lot of their experiences were.

Helping to bring family members on the company retreats (and realizing that families might want different accommodation from single people) is a great example. It’s obvious that one parent traveling for work will necessarily create some disruption at home, but it’s a rare organization that would even think of this as an issue, let alone help pay to bring the family along.

Similarly, Buffer’s Kevan Lee looks after his son during the day, and works more in the mornings and evenings. It doesn’t sound much, but Buffer grasps that this means a great deal to one of their employees and their family, and then takes steps to accommodate that need. This flexibility can change lives and create loyal happy people who want to work of you, and yet it is still so rare as to be worth commenting on.

I love this appreciation of flexibility either in a day, or in geographic location, not just for abstract reasons, but for very personal ones too. I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico with my wife and daughter. It’s a nice town to be in, my daughter loves her school, her friends and her soccer team, and my wife runs her own architecture firm — we have no plans to leave any time soon.

But staying here while working remotely would open up a wider range of professional opportunities for me. I expand all the possible jobs for me to all the remote-friendly opening in the world, rather than looking just within my town of 80,000 souls. I don’t have to compromise on the job I want to live in the place i want.

That’s looking at things from a macro level — the job I do and where I live — but as Kevan Lee’s example shows, remote working has lots of micro-level benefits: small daily improvements that add up to a markedly better quality of life both for the employee and their family. Being in the town you like is great, but not so great if you never get the chance to see much of it during the day, or you can’t coach your kid’s sports team or attend their end of year concert because you’re always in the office.

Remote teams replace showing up to a particular location for a set time with a much more nuanced set of tools for measuring performance and communicating with their colleagues regardless of time and space, giving everyone more flexibility to set their own hours and working arrangements.

So digital nomads might be the poster children for this new way of working, but creating opportunities for globe-hopping is really just a fringe benefit of the move to remote working. The key changes are more mundane, but much more far-reaching and valuable — the potential to change the way a huge number of families live, even if they stay exactly where they are.

Can Mindfulness Be Your Startup’s Secret Weapon?

ABC news anchor Dan Harris has a striking line in his recent best-seller on meditation, 10% Happier:

“Many people live habitually as if the present moment were an obstacle that they need to overcome in order to get to the next moment. And imagine living your whole life like that, where always this moment is never quite right, not good enough because you need to get to the next one. That is continuous stress.”

That sounds like a description of running or working in many startups. The ‘continuous stress’ used to be considered a necessary part of the startup experience, but an increasing number of investors and startups are turning to mindfulness as a more positive approach to running an organization.

Trevor Loy, a VC funder who blogs on mindfulness explains why we need to take a closer look at this issue.

“It amazes me that over the last decade we’ve re-invented product development; popularized customer development; laid out the canvas for business model development; and completely ignored our leaders and their psychological, social and emotional development.”

As defined by prominent mindfulness and meditation expert Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.

That sounds a little vague — we all think we’re paying attention most of the time — until we start a practice like meditation that forces us to examine what we’re actually thinking about.

Dan Harris describes an early meditation attempt in which he was supposed to be paying attention to his breath:

“The repeated attempt to bring the compulsive thought machine to heel was like holding a live fish in your hands. Wrestling your mind to the ground, repeatedly hauling your attention back to the breath in the face of the inner onslaught required genuine grit.”

If mindfulness is a kind of mental fitness, and meditation is one possible training method to get you there — in the same way as running or weight training are different ways to achieve physical fitness.

Benefits for Individuals

So how does this difficult work of improving your mindfulness help you deal with a fast-paced startup? Repeated research has shown the benefits include greater creativity, productivity and willpower, improved physical health and even reduced fear.

A study at Yale University reported in Entrepreneur showed that people who regularly practice meditation are better able to concentrate, switching off areas of the brain linked to daydreaming and lapses of attention, while Dr Kelly McGonigal from Stanford University describes meditation as key to increasing willpower.

Extending Mindfulness to the Organization

One obvious step is for employees at startups and other technology companies to be encouraged to start practicing meditation, and companies such as Medium, Google and Dropbox offer meditation classes and workshops to their employees.

However, if the expectations, values and processes within an organization don’t also encourage mindfulness, then the classes alone won’t fix the problem.

Medium co-founder Ev Williams asked Jonathan Rosenfeld, Medium’s Change Strategy and Leadership Consultant, how they could build a company where people were productive, creative, and engaged but not working crazy hours.

Rosenfeld replied,

“We remove as much pointless, non-productive anxiety from the workplace as possible . . . If you reduce anxiety, you get the productivity and creativity without the crazy hours. Mindfulness also reduces interpersonal anxiety. This frees people up to be better colleagues and collaborators.”

This cultural shift has to come from the top, and needs to include systems that allows for everyone to deliver and receive careful feedback: too often, organizations react quickly rather than respond thoughtfully.

Changing a strictly hierarchical organization structure can also help to improve mindfulness — if employees can make decisions on what and how they work on projects, they’re more likely to take a considered approach.

Rosenfeld argues that improving communications skills is also valuable: “In an environment that favors curiosity, compassion, generosity, identification, and appreciation, it’s relatively safe to have tough conversations.”

The Future of Mindfulness

Events such as the Wisdom 2.0 conference show mindfulness is currently a hot topic in the US tech world, and it’s part of the broader trend of lifehacking as we investigate techniques and approaches to wellness and self-improvement that include Fitbits and habits apps like Coach.me.

But the unarguable individual benefits of improving mindfulness are more than just a fashion, and working on mindfulness at an organization level also suits the tech startup model of trying a range of approaches and sticking with those that deliver measurable value.

We’ve recognized that the old-style workplace is full of distractions such as too many in-person meetings and emails. Working on mindfulness in a startup might be the best way to work on the biggest source of distraction of all — our own brains.

Presenteeism and What to Do About It

We’ve all seen the co-worker who drags themselves to the office while they’re fighting a stinking cold, and sneezes and groans their way through the day, because ‘they’ve got something they have to get done’.

Heroic, right? They must be the sort of committed and dedicated employee we need — someone you’d want in you foxhole when the shooting starts.

Except not really, because work isn’t war (despite all the military idioms that some businesses employ), and in the long run that sort of behaviour doesn’t help.

Organizations know that absenteeism is a problem — that is, people not showing up even though they’re fine. Pulling a sickie might suggest a number of culture and leadership issues, but people showing up when they really shouldn’t is at least as worrying.

Presenteeism can be defined in a limited way as coming to work when you’re sick, but more generally it describes employees being physically present at work when they’re physically or mentally distracted to the point of being significantly unproductive.

Sometimes this might be as obvious as someone who is clearly ill coming in to save limited sick days, or because they have no paid sick days in the first place.

Another reason for sick people showing up might be a workplace culture that emphasizes attendance as part of a performance review — or just a culture where putting in crazy hours is the norm.

These sort of practices are often set up to counter absenteeism problems or because of the misguided sense that progress is best achieved by just throwing lots of hours at an issue.

But working excessively can end up creating more problems than it solves. Even though it’s easier to manage, presence is not performance, and the irony is that trying to avoid fake absences can in the long term cause more genuine absences.

That’s because the downsides of presenteeism go beyond just getting your coworkers sick. Reduced productivity and creativity, along with disengagement and lack of motivation create a potent negative cocktail.

Some workers might be resentful — they’d rather not be there but feel they have to be — while others might want to be there at all hours to impress the boss. Both groups can be vulnerable to burnout, with symptoms such as depression, sleeplessness, and chronic fatigue. The work, the worker and employee retention all suffer, even though the office might be full.

Fixes to presenteeism problems

The solutions to presenteeism can be both practical and cultural:

  • Tie reviews to performance not to presence at work
  • Create a culture of being interested in the person as a whole not just their capability as a productive employee
  • Set a good example as leadership by taking vacations and working reasonable hours
  • Create a minimum vacation time
  • Don’t count sick days but make sure employees are paid for them
  • Implementing a workplace wellness plan (look at this from the the UK Department of Work and Pensions for an example)

Especially in the US there’s a sense that working hard and being seen to work hard are crucial to success, but there’s a growing sense that how we judge what counts as working hard needs to be re-evaluated.

Getting lots of good stuff done while taking time off to ensure the progress is sustainable might not sound as exciting as burning the midnight oil, but sooner or later the oil will run out.

5 Reasons Non-profits Should Embrace Distributed Working

Some (but not all) of the organizations pursuing the widest range of innovative working practices seem to be software or web-related firms. Buffer, Automattic, Treehouse and Lullabot spring to mind, but there are many others, and that’s not a huge surprise, since these firms work in a virtual world where their raw materials, and the labour and the delivery of their products all happen digitally. They also have a predominantly younger set of employees, who are comfortable both with the technology of remote working, and also with a philosophy that doesn’t define work as showing up at a physical location and being told what to do.

But many non-profit organizations would also see a great range of benefits from adopting similar approaches, and in many ways non-profits have more to gain from these measures, including helping to attract smarter people and allowing them to do more while spending less money.

Let’s look at some of the key reasons non-profits should be in the vanguard of these future work approaches:

1) Attract and retain better employees

If you can’t pay top dollar, then you need other ways attract talented employees. Offering them a flexible and/or completely distributed working environment can be a great draw, as can self-managing teams. Especially for younger people, the appeal of no commuting, increased autonomy, generous vacation time and other thoughtful benefits can outweigh purely monetary gains, especially if they will also be working on something they consider worthwhile.

For the non-profit, the ability to recruit from a global talent pool rather than one limited by geography can mean they get the best person for the job, not just the least bad candidate in their town.

2) Lower overhead

For better or worse (and it’s often worse), funders look carefully at non-profits’ operating expenses, especially as they compare to the amount they put into their programs. There’s a strong case to be made that this can be very short-sighted: if my expenses are $1,000 and I raise $20,000 for my programs, is that really better than if my expenses are $3,000 and I used that extra expenditure to raise $500,000? That said, there’s no doubt that a commitment to reduce unnecessary overheads can funnel more money towards programs and development. The cost of running an office is increasingly becoming an expensive and unnecessary overhead.

3) Lower carbon footprint

If your non-profit works in the environmental arena (but even it if doesn’t), you should make sure you’re causing as little environmental damage as you can while doing your work. In the same way as investors and consumers are increasingly interested in a company’s corporate social responsibility, so foundations and individual donors are looking to non-profits to do the right thing in all their dealings, not just their core mission.

Making people commute to work increases greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (unless everyone is riding their bikes or driving a solar-charged Tesla), but the biggest source of emissions for most organizations is their building itself. In the US, building operations (which includes heating, lighting, cooling, running the computers) areresponsible for nearly half of all CO2 emissions. And that doesn’t factor in the embodied carbon in the materials used to construct the buildings in the first place.

Some nonprofits take this issue seriously — the Packard Foundation have a great zero-net energy headquarters that generates all the energy it uses — but others would better not to have an office at all. We all need a place to rest our heads, but having a completely separate place to do work that we could do at home is environmentally hard to justify.

4) Flexible working forces better management

It’s harder to run a nonprofit than a commercial organization. This is partly because of the misguided efforts to cut operating expenses explored above, which leave most organizations understaffed and overworked, but also because of the unique challenges that non-profits face. Their goals are often harder to measure, and their teams and boards expect much more consensus-building than more traditional top-down companies have to deal with.

The detailed communication and clear procedures that distributed teams and self-management require can provide a much more solid basis for success in this context than the more usual death-by-a-hundred-meetings management style seen in non-profits.

5) Progressive organizations should work progressively

By their very nature, most non-profits are working to make the world a better place. They see the current situation as flawed, and want to improve it. It’s ironic then that this aspirational approach in many cases doesn’t extend to how they plan to bring about this change. There’s something wrong if you’re aiming towards the future, but doing so in an old-fashioned way. Progressive organizations should be the first to consider new ways of working, rather than not even thinking about how they do things.

If I were a foundation looking to fund a non-profit or one of its programs, I’d be looking for evidence that the non-profit was carefully examining and reflecting on not just what its mission was, but on how it was going to achieve it. Which includes considering how to express its values through the way it works.

And non-profits don’t have to be a distributed team to reap some of these benefits. For example, a recent job advertisement from the MacArthur Foundation for a Director of People and Culture clearly shows they are asking good questions about how they want their organization to succeed.

If other non-profits started addressing their working practices with a similar bravery and imagination, the sector could achieve so much more, which would benefit everyone.

Dear America, you have cruel and unusual work practices

Dear America, you have cruel and unusual work practices


Dear America, you have cruel and unusual work practices

Dear America,

You know I love you. You’re funny and generous and have a great attitude. You’re pretty and you’ve been really good to me since we first got together in the late 90s. But we need to talk.

You’ve got some destructive habits, especially when it comes to work. And it’s making you look heartless and dumb (or maybe even cruel and unusual).

I know I’m from Europe where we do things a little bit differently, but it’s not just a style problem — what you’re doing is hurting millions of people. Where I’m from we have things like a minimum of four weeks paid holiday (what we call vacation) for full-time salaried workers. That’s the law. We also have more public holidays, which is particularly apposite as I started writing this post on Good Friday while in the office.

As you know, here in your land of the free, there’s no legally required amount of paid vacation time. None. A lot of organizations think they’re going out of their way to give you 10 days, and you know what’s weird? You guys accept it. Just as you accept longer working weeks. At least partly in the name of greater productivity.

Except it doesn’t work. Those slackers in Scandinavia and the Netherlands work fewer hours per week, and way fewer days per year, and I hate to tell you this, America, but they’re getting almost as much done, while spending more time with their families or on their hobbies. And they are healthier and happier.

A misplaced idea of productivity is part of the reason you do this to yourself, but it’s not just productivity for its own sake. It’s about your sense of self, America. So much of your identity comes from your work, and the presenteeism you espouse is important to how your see yourself, even if it’s damaging. Lots of you don’t even take all the limited holiday time you’re given. Learning to accept that there’s a better way is going take time, and I’m not discounting the power of big businesses who misguidedly think that more hours must mean more work. But as I said, individuals and business owners have a lot of responsibility for accepting this.

Come on America, I thought you were all about fearless experimentation and refusal to accept the status quo, so let’s see a bit of that for the benefit of everyone — workers, families and businesses. Fortunately, there is an increasing number of companies that are showing the way — real American heroes who want to work less, but better.

All the best,

David

By David Moore on April 10, 2015.

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Exported from Medium on October 17, 2020.

An Unplanned Corporate Culture is still a Culture

Why it’s crucial to examine values from the start

When I was working as a web content strategist, I had a terrible boss.

There was a clash between what was important to me and how the company was run: I wanted to do creative projects that focused on storytelling and content marketing while the boss would take any web-related job that came along. I wanted to take time off when I wasn‘t busy or at the end of a project, but that never seemed to happen. I wanted to explore innovative ways of working, but there was no system in place to allow that experimentation, so I had to show up to the office and stick to basics like using email for all communication. I never had a real sense of what the organization stood for.

Lots of people have no doubt been in similar situations, but my particular tragedy was that I was working for myself. At least I learned a very valuable lesson: organizations have a culture that effects everything they do, and this is especially true if the organization has never even thought about what that culture should be (and even when there’s only one person working there).

Tony Hsieh of Zappos is clear on the importance of stating values in helping define a company’s culture:

Even though our core values guide us in everything we do today, we didn’t actually have any formal core values for the first six or seven years of the company’s history. . .

I’m just glad that an employee finally convinced me that it was necessary to come up with core values — essentially, a formalized definition of our culture — in order for us to continue to scale and grow.

I only wish we had done it sooner.

This is not to say Zappos didn‘t have a corporate culture or values before they were explored in the open and stated. They certainly did, but they were hidden and assumed, which is the case in most organizations. And in lieu of stated values and a culture that’s considered and worked on, you often get a mess of unstated expectations and assumptions that helps nobody: an unintentional culture.

What Is a Corporate Culture?

Think of it as the company‘s DNA — the code embedded throughout its structure which diatates pretty much everything it does. The jobs it goes for, the prices it sets, how it does the work, treats its employees, what procedures it puts in place.

Inc.com defines it as:

the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that characterize members of an organization and define its nature. Corporate culture is rooted in an organization’s goals, strategies, structure, and approaches to labor, customers, investors, and the greater community. As such, it is an essential component in any business’s ultimate success or failure

A lot of organizations make a fuss about their mission statements, but how they actually do business is often in stark contrast to that high-flown language. A clear statement of values can be more useful in providing guidance, and in helping to determine the culture of an organization.

No Overt Culture is still a Culture

When there’s no discussion about all this stuff, then as we’ve seen in other areas like having a physical office, inertia often wins out. The hidden and assumed values of the founders and bosses become the de facto culture of the organization, and they’re much harder to change because they are never really discussed. This is particularly true when it comes to progressive work practices and approaches.

If the boss has never even considered the idea of working as a remote team, or adopting a results-only work environment, then you’ve got almost no chance of making progress on these measures.

As Frederic Laloux points out in his book Reinventing Organizations,

‘an organization cannot evolve beyond its leadership’s stage of development’.

With non-profits, for example, there’s often a great mismatch between the progressive nature of their programs and the regressive way they go about them. Often, people who want to bring about important changes in the world never stop to think about how they’re going to do that. This is partly due to the tyranny of the notion of controlling operating expenses (see here for Dan Pallotta’s great takedown of that canard), and partly because of the unspoken idea that non-profit workers should somehow suffer for their good work. As if the work itself — however badly they’re asked to do it — should be motivation enough.

Most people start organizations because they want to make progress on whatever the organization does, whether it’s a non-profit or not — painters gonna paint, bakers gonna bake, if you will. It’s a rare person who is driven both to create an organization from scratch, and to consider how that organization should work.

So if you’re starting a business, time spent early on defining what you will and won’t do, how you want to treat your staff and partners, and what really matters to the organization will make a host of other decisions so much easier later. Who and how you hire, where and how you work, even down to how you handle customer complaints should all be seen chances for the organization to manifest its values.

If you’re looking for a job, then you should be mildly interested in the mission statement of any prospective employer, but pore over the company’s stated values very carefully — and look for signs they were being implemented. Netflix’s famous slidedeck is a great example of this.

You should also spend time working out what your personal values are, especially as they relate to work. Otherwise, you won’t be able to see if there’s a match.

And be careful if there’s no clear set of values — an unplanned culture can be the worst type of culture of all.

Why do we still have offices?

It used to be that work was the place that contained the equipment and materials you needed to do your work: paperwork, typewriters, fax machines and copiers.

Now, unless we need specialized machinery or are working in stores where people come in to buy stuff (remember those?), a lot of us can theoretically do our work anywhere we have an Internet-connected device and a phone. For example, I’m writing this in my doctor’s office in Santa Fe while I wait 30 minutes to ensure I don’t collapse in an anaphylactic mess after getting my allergy shots (Ed: and I’m editing it sitting outside a cafe in Brentwood, Los Angeles).

So why do you have to go to a place that duplicates the facilities you’re carrying in your pocket? It often boils down to inertia and fear on the part of the employer.

Inertia

Firstly inertia: it’s easier to keep doing what we’ve always done long after the reason for it no longer applies — especially if very few people are asking any awkward questions about why. Sir Ken Robinson points out that not many people under the age of 25 wear watches, because they’ve grown up being used to checking the time on their phones. Older people also have phones, but are mainly still wearing watches — we don’t need them, we’ve just got used to doing it that way.

Whether you wear a watch or not is pretty harmless (I love my anachronistic mechanical single-function device), but the same inertia extends to office customs, including the custom of having a office in the first place. Especially for people over 35 or so, there’s often a deep unquestioned assumption that you have to go somewhere special to do work, especially if you’ll be working with others. If you’re starting a business or a nonprofit, you think of the time when you’ll get your space, hang up your shingle, and open your doors.

People can’t immediately imagine how not having an office would work, and the effort to work out how you’ll collaborate with your team, share files and get stuff done seems daunting when you could just stumble along with familiar in-person habits instead, even if they cost a fortune and make everyone miserable. Despite this, many of the ways we now work in an office underline how we don’t need to be there: we put files up on Dropbox rather than a local server, email folks sitting across the room from us, and do GoToMeeting sessions with colleagues across the country.

In the inertia-run workplace, some people are allowed to work virtually, but even that doesn’t raise the question of why the rest of us can’t do the same. As Jason Fried of Basecamp points out in his book Remote, we trust a wide range of consultants (like our accountants and lawyers) to work without supervision — perhaps because we assume they’re sitting in their own offices.

But despite these inconsistencies and the lack of joined-up thinking, inertia keeps people struggling through traffic to reach offices they don’t need to be in.

Fear

Managers and owners would say that supervision is another key reason for keeping a physical office: people come in, they get told what to do, and then stay there while they do it so superiors can make sure it gets done. Supervision literally means ‘looking over’, with the implication that without being watched, employees can’t be trusted to do their work. Supervision is born of fear — the fear that nothing will get done, that people left to their own devices will slack off and watch YouTube cat videos all day.

Many employers’ default position is to mistrust the people they hired to the point that they pay a fortune in rent for a glorified Panopticon.

And in some ways the managers are right. People tend to perform to expectations, and if it’s clear that employees are expected to slack off and not think for themselves, then they will. In this sort of culture, people internalize the sense that they can’t be trusted to look after their organization’s best interests, so don’t really try (‘Not my monkeys, not my circus.’), and rightly conclude that can’t trust their employer to look after their best interests either. When required attendance in an office is backed up by strict vacation policies, approval procedures for spending the company’s money and other policing measure, staff end up being treated like children.

This supervision born of fear doesn’t even work very well, since being able to see people at their desks is a terrible way of keeping track of what people are doing, let alone motivating them to perform at their best. Focusing on ensuring that people are physically present often replaces more more positive values, processes, communication, goal-setting and support that would actually help people get stuff done, and enable everyone to have more transparency about what was being worked on when.

Because the more old-school supervision and meeting approaches won’t work, a virtual organization has to have better processes, tools and communication channels in place, making them ironically much better at tracking productivity than the bums-on-seats employers.

Fear and inertia are tough to overcome, but do you really want to work for a company whose key organizational model is built on those negative values? The success of a growing number of organizations such as Automattic and InVision show that it’s possible to work in a different way, and I would argue that it’s essential, if we’re all to be as happy, productive and profitable as we can be.