In 2012 I asked my supervisor if I could start working "remotely." The project I was working on was our building's master schedule. School was out for the summer, so there were no students or staff around.
I was given permission to work at home instead of having to report to my physical office. Although I was only allowed to work remotely for a couple days, my whole demeanor about work changed. I instantly went from irritated to having to go to the same office where I spend a majority of my waking hours to ecstatic in realizing I had the autonomy to control how and where I completed my work.
In terms of where to work, my decision was easy. There was a local coffee shop I used to love visiting for the purpose of completing work. There was something about the smell of coffee, putting on the headphones, and having my own private table that got me in the "zone" for being highly productive.
Clearly, in 2012 businesses had been doing plenty of "remote" work for several years. Ever since the internet became widespread more and more work was being done outside the physical office. However, in the field of education remote work was not well received. In fact, to this day remote work is typically frowned upon by school leadership.
I guess you could say I have a different mindset for thinking about work. Put simply, I don't care how work gets done, as long as work gets done at a high level.
This opinion is explained well in the book 12: The Elements of Great Managing by Rodd Wagner and James Harter. In their book, the authors explain the following, "As long as an employee accomplishes the goals for which he is responsible, without any harm along the way, how he gets there does not matter."
Another excerpt about re-thinking work is from the book Remote: Office Not Required. In their book, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson suggest the following: "If you ask people where they go when they really need to get work done, very few will respond "the office." If they do say the office, they'll include a qualifier such as "super early in the morning before anyone gets in" or "I stay late at night after everyone's left." What they're trying to tell you is that they can't get work done at work. The office during the day has become the last place people want to be when they really want to get work done."
I personally love working remotely. I find I do my most productive work when I am able to choose my location and environment for working. Furthermore, I find when I am away from the office, my creativity levels are higher because I am able to complete uninterrupted work for longer periods of time.
So why are educational leaders so quick to dismiss remote work? Clearly when school is in session, remote work is not a viable option. Most school staff must be physically present to work directly with students. This part of work is non-negotiable. I would speculate that 95% of the work completed in schools cannot be done remotely. However, I am encouraging school leaders to look at the other 5% of time when staff may not need to be physically present in the buildings to get work done.
Here are a few times when remote work may make sense:
Administrators - Many administrators work during the summer months. I am surprised when I hear most school leaders are required to report to the office during these times. Since most of the work administrators complete in the summer (email, strategic planning, scheduling, goal setting, hiring, etc.) can be done by laptop, I would question whether an administrator truly needs to be "in the office."
Secretaries - Similar to administrators, secretaries often work summer hours and are almost always required to be in the office. In my experience, almost all secretarial work is completed on the computer. Why force secretaries to be physically present in the office? Secretaries are already in the building or office almost every other day of the year. Why not provide them an opportunity to get out of the office for once and allow them to work from the comfort of their couch?
Teachers - Admittedly, this one gets a bit trickier. As was alluded to earlier, nothing will replace a highly effective teacher who is physically in front of a group of students. However, I would encourage all leaders to look at their professional development days. For example, in our district we about approximately 10 professional development days without kids. Couldn't some of this professional development time be done remotely? I bet if you polled your teachers most would love this option.
Support Staff - There are several support staff who are required by contract to work extra days in the summer. The group includes counselors, therapists, community liaisons, behavior interventionists, and several other positions. Similar to administrators and secretaries, much of their work can be done away from the building or office.
As you read through these ideas I'm sure you have some questions. Allow me to address some of the common concerns I hear about remote work:
Will they do work if they aren't in the office? Whenever I get this question I come back with the same response: If we can't trust a professional to work at high levels regardless of where they are physically located, we probably have much bigger issues what that employee. We need to have a mindset where all employees are trusted. If the employee can't be trusted, then why is he/she still working in your organization?
But someone needs to be in the building! I understand this concern. Communities are accustomed to having someone in the building. First of all, I'm not saying everyone needs to be out of the building. For example, if you have four people working in a building in the summer, is there really a need to have four people in the building? Can't one person be present there to answer phone calls, pick up deliveries, and answer the door? I've found as long as you are clearly communicating with your community your office hours and protocols, I've found no issue operating with a smaller staff during slow times of the year.
We don't have the equipment to do remote work. I hear this especially with secretaries and support staff. Many office staff in schools only have desktop computers and don't have laptops. I would recommend districts replace your old desktops with laptops for your office staff, which will allow your office staff to have more autonomy and freedom for when and how to complete their assignments.
But it's not fair to other staff members who can't leave! That's absolutely true, there are some staff members who don't have an option of working at home. There are different pros and cons to each job out there, and this is one of them. If someone wants to take a different job within our district that they might enjoy better, I encourage them to apply. We can't stop what's doing best for most of our people because of the possible hurt feelings of a few.
But what if we don't want to work remotely? Again, this is fine. No one is forced to do remote work. If employees would rather sit in the same chair in the same room for 260 days a year, that is up to them. I like the flexibility of working in different locations, but remote work is definitely not for everyone.
Allow me to reiterate that remote work should makes up a very small percentage of work in school districts. Not only is the best work in schools done directly with students and other staff members, the reality is many school employees do not have an option to work remotely. However, I do encourage educational leaders to start looking at more opportunities to explore and embrace remote work.
Anyone who has worked in a school realizes that working with students for 190 days can create high levels of stress, anxiety, and tension. To combat these burdens, school leaders must explore every opportunity to keep staff members relaxed, happy, and refreshed so they can perform their jobs at high levels. Giving employees opportunities to work from home can produce quick jolts of happiness, relaxation, and peace of mind. Providing staff with autonomy for working builds trust and communicates to our staff that we have faith that they will get a job at high levels, regardless of where the work is completed.
Looking for another good book discussing the topic of staff productivity? Consider reading Measure What Matters by John Doerr.