Revenge of the Remote-Worker Nerds

Revenge of the Remote-Worker Nerds

Pandemic reveals why employers need to embrace telework, instead of simply tolerating it.

Introverts have historically suffered in corporate America, particularly during the last decade. Super-schmoozers, with their endless connections and carefully honed “personal brands,” seem to always get first dibs on the window office, the discretionary bonus, the special task-force seat.

But a certain subset of individuals finds the description “working from home” very comforting and, more importantly, natural. These are the people who value solitude. They don’t equate personal interaction with personal inspiration. And they are more than happy to communicate in a style best suited to their strength: in writing

To be sure, almost 60 percent of American knowledge workers, according to a recent Atlantic article, have been forced to work from home under federal and state quarantine mandates that took effect in March. Yet a great many of these quarantined Americans classify themselves as “extroverts,” people who crave physical and emotional contact with their co-workers and teams in order to validate their, let’s just say, humanity, as well as their paycheck.

In the nonstop analysis of which businesses will survive the pandemic, the question is generally raised about what they looked like “going in,” meaning how viable and efficient their operations were before the coronavirus onslaught.

The same is true for companies now forced to accept telework as the norm. Forward-thinking businesses that for the past five years have allowed employees to telework at least two days a week, for example, will have a much easier time adjusting to a four- or five-day telework schedule. Their processes and policies were already in place before the pandemic, when telework was generally viewed as a non-monetary employee “benefit,” like a flexible schedule or alternating start times. 

According to an analysis done by Global Workplace Analytics and the job search site Flexjobs, the upward trend of people working remotely in the last five years has increased 44 percent, with 4.7 million workers eschewing the office environment.

In other words, 3.4 percent of America’s population worked “elsewhere” (including coffee shops, mass transit, and their lawn) before the pandemic. But again, the “old” stereotype of the remote worker as a freelancer or a “part-timer” no longer applies. One of the more ironic findings cited in the pre-pandemic Flexjobs article was that “remote workers tend to take fewer sick days, likely due to less exposure to germs in a typical office.”

Fast-forward four months. In a May 6 webinar “Understanding the New World of Work,” Inc. magazine interviewed Jason Fried, a Chicago software entrepreneur and co-founder of a company that builds web-based productivity tools. Fried has led an entirely remote-based workforce for 20 years. His quiet observations via Zoom seemed not only practical but prophetic, given that he has lived the life of telework in real time for a long time. 

Fried’s most potent advice for employers struggling to adapt to telework: “Do not simulate the way you worked before.” You cannot, and should not, attempt to recreate all the great interactions, meetings, light-bulb moments, collaborations, brainstorming sessions, conference room agendas, and shared calendars for a remote environment. He says that simply isn’t viable, despite the high anxiety that CEOs and supervisors feel about losing touch, losing control, and just plain losing.

Instead, Fried advocates for “deep thinking” from himself and his employees, the type of thinking that he says is best done remotely. Why? Because the at-home worker, in a non-pandemic home setting without home-schooling responsibilities (a “normal” home environment), simply has fewer interruptions.

More time to oneself, Fried says, is simply “time better spent.” Fried has written several books on the nature of productivity and is famous for his anti-meeting philosophy and belief that a one-hour meeting with five people is five hours of lost work time and untold money. Meetings, he notes, always pull people off their jobs.

Even more thought-provoking was Fried’s revolutionary take on the beauty of “sleeping on an idea.” He urges workers, when confronted with the in-your-face question “Well, what do you think?” to simply respond, “I’m not sure. Let me think about it.” Fried is horrified by the spread of surveillance software and notes that anxious supervisors should “look at the work, not at the person doing the work.”

Finally, Fried is most definitely anti-chat. FOMO (fear of missing out) is usually attributed to teenagers glued to TikTok. But workplace FOMO, aided by platforms such as Slack, is endemic to poor performance, according to Fried. Rather, a successful telework model must operate on one rule: learn to communicate without the expectation of an immediate response.

Fried’s wise words will be music to the ears of solitude-lovers, introverts, and experienced teleworkers. It’s harder for those who identify as charismatic leaders and consistently rate themselves high on the “people skills” scale. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported only 29 percent of Americans can actually work from home. But wait. That was a pre-pandemic statistic. Now that millions of us have to work from home, it’s likely that many will like it, and the nerds can say, in writing, “I told you so.”

Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney. Holstein also mediates employment and business law disputes (holsteinmediation.com).

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