In Remote Work Revolution (Harper Business, Apr. 2021), Tsedal Neeley, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, proposes a transition playbook for teams, individuals, and managers who are moving from co-located to remote workplaces. PW spoke with Neeley about Zoom fatigue, productivity myths, and the future of globally dispersed work.
Did the pandemic spark your interest in this topic?
My interest in this began almost 20 years ago; Covid just accelerated the completion of the book. I got my PhD from Stanford specializing in work, technology, and organizations, and I was always convinced that technology was going to change the future of work. As someone who cares a lot about globalization, I understood that global collaboration would require a workforce learning to work across boundaries, whether those boundaries are geographical, linguistic, or cultural. At some point, we’ll all have to learn how to do distanced collaboration.
Is that why you write in the introduction, “The future is in remote work”?
This isn’t just a speculation; it’s a prediction. Covid has exposed people to the efficacy of remote work, and shown workers that they don’t have to travel as much, and don’t have to pay for top-notch real estate. And so some companies are changing their policies to allow it—and they’re literally using this word—forever. The data going back to the early 1990s on productivity is clear: if the right conditions are met, people are more productive working remotely, not less. Learning what those conditions are will help individuals, managers, and organizations be more competitive. Those who learn will outperform those who don’t. We need to learn how to thrive, not just survive, in remote work, because this isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s time to learn how to do this well.
With the number of women leaving the workforce because of caretaking responsibilities, do you see a demographic shift happening in labor as a result?
I’m hoping against all hope that this is a transitional phase. But you do see women and POC taking a hit. Organizations need to work harder to retain women and POC. They need to allow true flex time, where people determine what they can get done based on their home situation. How can employees who have caretaking responsibilities get work done and not have to opt out? And organizations need to use technology intelligently. We need to think about what kind of communication should be done on the phone, by email, etc. Just because you can schedule Zoom meetings back-to-back doesn’t mean you should.
How can managers effectively build and encourage remote teams?
If you’re going to succeed as a remote leader, you need to commit to learning the change in mindset and skills you need to lead well; you’re not just going to figure it out by yourself. You need to answer the questions: How do I set the expectation for high performance? How do I motivate a remote workforce when I don’t see them? How do I connect with people? How do I know what’s going on? You sometimes see paranoia in remote work settings, especially in small companies—there’s a sense that if I can’t see [my employees], are they really doing the work, am I really in control? Sales of awareness technologies like keyboard surveillance are through the roof. Managers need to take the lesson from Hemingway: “The way to make people trustworthy is to trust them.”