Work Is Not a Place,
It’s Something You Do

Jurgen Appelo
Jul 24, 2014 · 5 min read

The first time I became a manager at a small company I wondered about a number of things beyond just the size of my monthly salary. I wondered about the size of my end-of-year bonus, the size of my office corner, and how many vacation days I should negotiate with the business owners. One of them said to me, “Why should I care how long you are away from the office? I just want to see a profit at the end of the year.” It was my first trust-only work environment.

Contrast that with the experience I had several years later at another company that had a time clock. All employees were expected to check in and check out at the start and at the end of every day. Proof that this clocked time was actually monitored came when the financial controller reprimanded me one day for “working” only 7 hours and 25 minutes the day before. Apparently it didn’t matter that I had clocked at least 9 hours on other days. This is a clear example of a time-driven or presence-driven work environment.

You won’t be surprised when I say I preferred the former to the latter.

Remote Working

Many employees have to juggle the challenges of dropping off and picking up their kids from school or day care, attending to their parents at an elderly home, visiting the hospital to see a loved one, attending yoga classes, learning a foreign language, evading or suffering traffic jams, working out at the gym, walking the dog, donating blood, or doing charity work. [Javitch, “The Benefits of Flextime”] In a number of organizations, they are experimenting with different concepts and solutions. Employees are allowed to do part of their work at home, in remote co-working offices, while traveling abroad, at the day care center, or at the local Starbucks. Multiple reports have indicated increased morale, better focus, higher productivity, reduced turnover, and lower expenses in environments with a flexible attitude toward the location of work. [Boag, “Benefits and Challenges of Remote Working”; Surowiecki, “Face Time”] Also, such organizations tend to draw more-experienced, high-quality workers who prefer to work wherever they want.

Not unexpectedly, allowing people to do their work anywhere creates a bucket load of new challenges. What about privacy, security, and confidentiality? What about people’s equipment, insurance, and travel expenses? [Elliott, “4 Important Considerations for Creating a Remote Work Policy”] Most organizations feel the need to develop a remote working policy that clearly defines people’s rights and responsibilities when they are working away from the office. And then there are other issues. When people work on their own as telecommuters, there is an increased risk of loss of trust, collaboration, and social cohesion. [McGregor, “Flextime”; Surowiecki, “Face Time”] In other words, the organization may risk losing a healthy culture. [Hauser, “What’s Wrong with a No-Remote-Work Policy?”] It’s no coincidence that even the hippest and trendiest Silicon Valley companies often spend large sums of money on free food, games, massages, and fitness equipment in order to keep everyone together in the same office as much as possible.

Trust-Only Work Environments

Still, the option of doing useful work while away from the office seems like a step toward a more trust-driven work environment. And it is also a step toward feedback systems focusing on how people do their work, not on where they work.

Human organizations are complex systems. We can imagine many other vicious and virtuous cycles of trust, using any combination of the ten trust factors. However, many authors believe that growing trust by focusing first on commitment is a good bet. Developing a track record of commitment and trust might take a lot of time and effort. Trust is like money. It can take years to earn it and it takes only minutes to lose it. Authoritative managers who communicate (intentionally or not) that nobody in the office can be trusted to set their own time schedule, choose their own work place, and select their own vacation days, do not develop trust. They merely add to the distrust that is already there in the organization’s culture. [Valcour, “The End of ‘Results Only’”] You may wonder at the long-term effects of such a message on performance and retention, but many experts already know. [Peterson, “Cutting ROWE Won’t Cure Best Buy”]

Trust is like money. It can take years to earn it and it takes only minutes to lose it.

Trust First, Freedom Second

On the other hand, I agree that merely trusting everyone, no questions asked and no strings attached, will often have the same results. Instead, you should start with the premise that trust (maybe not in your interests, similarities, or benevolent concerns, but in your capabilities, integrity, and communication skills) needs to be established first before you can do whatever you want. A focus on results not only follows but also precedes unlimited freedoms. [Daniels, “Results Only Work Environment?”]

It appears that a results-only work environment is a right that has to be earned. [Gregusson, “Creating a Remote Work Policy”] Instead of focusing on results, I believe creative workers should focus on trust first. They should learn that trust is grown by delivering on commitments, communicating often and well, aligning interests, showing benevolent concern, etc. When trust is established first, it is much easier to discuss and evaluate results later. Expecting trust to emerge automatically when just evaluating results is naïve and short-sighted. That’s why I prefer to talk about a trust-only work environment. When there is trust first, there will be results later. Create a trust-only work environment before a results-only work environment. Trust me.

When there is trust first, there will be results later.

Developing a work environment in which we trust people to get their work done also implies developing a work environment in which we can give feedback about that work. Steps toward giving workers more freedom by removing the focus on where they work also increases the need for evaluation about how they work. When work is something people do, not a place where they go, then feedback should also be targeted at what they do, not where they are.

Jurgen Appelo is Europe’s most popular leadership author, listed on Inc.com’s Top 50 Management Experts and 100 Great Leadership Speakers.

References

Boag, Paul. “The Benefits and Challenges of Remote Working” <http://bit.ly/1h2seSk> boagworld, 17 September 2013. Web.

Daniels, Aubrey. “Results Only Work Environment? It’s a Leadership Problem” <http://bit.ly/1h2BHc8> Talent Management, 27 March 2013. Web.

Elliott, Amy-Mae. “4 Important Considerations for Creating a Remote Work Policy” <http://on.mash.to/J9HBfN> Mashable, 12 September 2011. Web.

Gregusson, Halvor. “Creating a Remote Work Policy that Works” <http://bit.ly/1bxVMSc> Yast, 28 March 2013. Web.

Hauser, David. “What’s Wrong with a No-Remote-Work Policy at Yahoo?” <http://bit.ly/18nBP5R> davidhauser.com, 2013. Web.

Javitch, David G. “The Benefits of Flextime” <http://bit.ly/18FhwPr> Entrepreneur.com, 5 June 2006. Web.

McGregor, Jena. “Flextime: Honing the Balance” <http://buswk.co/18Wlg1r> Bloomberg Businessweek, 10 December 2006. Web.

Peterson, Gary. “Cutting ROWE Won’t Cure Best Buy” <http://onforb.es/1kCr53M> Forbes, 12 March 2013. Web.

Surowiecki, James. “Face Time” <http://nyr.kr/18WkyBp> The New Yorker, 18 March 2013. Web.

Valcour, Monique. “The End of ‘Results Only’ at Best Buy Is Bad News” <http://bit.ly/18WqGtt> Harvard Business Review, 8 March 2013. Web.

    Jurgen Appelo

    Written by

    Successful entrepreneur, Top 100 Leadership Speaker, Top 50 Management Expert, author of 4 books, junior in humility.