For all the talk of a future filled with remote working, managers and employees need to understand our inherent biases against this model, and how we can overcome them. Companies still reward presenteeism. In research published in MIT Sloan Management Review, Daniel Cable found telecommuters are less likely to be promoted. In one experiment subjects were asked to judge scenarios in which the only difference was whether the employee was at his office desk or at home. Managers rated those at the office to be more dependable and industrious, regardless of the quality of their work.
Visibility creates the illusion of value – even at firms that explicitly encourage staff to work from home. Mr Cable studied attitudes at Californian tech firms. Many asked employees not to come to the office too often; yet bosses unconsciously penalised those who obeyed.
As discussed in an article in The Economist: “Remote workers understand this. Many barrage their bosses with progress reports to prove they are on the job. A fifth of the workers in the study admitted to leaving a canny e-mail or voicemail early or late in the day. Still, many are not as smart as they think. Some choose a Monday or Friday to work at home. That, says Mr Cable, makes others think they are keen to extend the weekend. A culture of presenteeism hurts working mothers most. Many professional women (and some men) work from home to allow themselves the flexibility to pick up kids from school. That need not mean they produce less; only that they do it at a time and a place of their own choosing. Some firms, such as Best Buy, an electronics retailer, recognise this and try hard to evaluate staff solely on performance.”
The stigma of working from home will only reduce when more people engage in the practice, – including senior management. As one female coaching client with whom I work explained: “My boss used to be very down on working from home – grumbling it was for working mums; until he had minor surgery on his knee. He told me that after his surgery he would be taking calls and responding to emails from home for a week. I asked: ‘Oh, you mean you are going to be flexible-working?’ to which he responded with seemingly genuine surprise ‘Yes, I guess I am!’ He’s been more positive about it recently, and I think it was only when he saw how it could benefit him did he truly understand how empowering it can be!’