Remote Work Is Not An All Or Nothing PropositionOr at least it shouldn’t be.

With all of the debate recently about Marissa Meyer’s decision to rein in remote workers, or the impact that social technologies are having on the way we work, it bothers me that this has become a black-and-white discussion.

It’s either a characterization that people work remotely and from a distance without any semblance of structure, playing foosball and surfing the web, or that they’re locked in a cubicle from 8 to 5 slogging away with sledgehammers and mimeographs.

There’s an awful lot of gray area in between.

What’s at issue here isn’t whether remote work can be effective.

What no experienced person really disputes:

  • There are advantages to having the ability to work from home or remote locations, and giving that ability to others.
  • There are disadvantages to working remotely, too, and to having remote teams.
  • There are inherent risks with allowing people to work detatched from a physical office location.
  • There are inherent risks with forcing people to be locked into a physical office location.
  • Face time with colleagues, customers, and partners is essential to maintaining good professional relationships over time.

What we’re really discussing – once again – is how to develop a culture that maximizes the advantages of flexible work arrangements while minimizing the risks, both at an individual and an organizational level.

These are issues of cultivating the individual judgment of employees, of them learning how to communicate and be accountable for their results, not the hours that their butt is in an office chair.

These are issues of management getting comfortable with being accountable for their team’s results and learning that leading people is much less about checking their work or presence management than it is developing an environment in which teams want to do — and are rewarded both directly and intrinsically for — the very best work they’re capable of.

These are issues of understanding the dynamics of human networks, and how both physical proximity and autonomy and empowerment motivate people to connect with each other, communicate, and collaborate as technology reduces friction but fosters distance.

We haven’t gotten the problem right yet, so we’re swinging at a nail with a screwdriver.

When we have discussions about the future of work and how our environments will change, it’s not a matter of making remote work “good” or “bad”. It’s a reality, one that is not going away, and it’s one aspect of a multi-faceted problem.

So let’s accept the fact that work is changing. Let’s accept the fact that how we’ve always worked isn’t the same as how we’ll work tomorrow, and that our physical environments, technologies, and individual professional motivations, expectations and contributions are all part of the picture.

I’ve worked remotely – either full-time or part-time – for upwards of 8 years now. I can tell you that some people, like me, thrive working this way and are far more productive than we ever would be with an office and conference rooms.

I have also managed remote teams, and I can tell you that for some people, working remotely is an absolute disaster.

The problem we need to solve is how to enable both kinds of employees, and everyone in between, and how to unify them with consistent culture, environment, and tools that allow them to work in whatever way is best for them to also do their best work for the company.

It’s only when we quit looking at things like this as either-or propositions — and throwing around categorical judgment about decisions we know nothing about — that we’ll ever start shaping a solution that works for our own company, employees, teams, and future.

That’s the only answer that ever really matters.