If a woman works in a forest, and no one sees her work, is she really working? Okay, silly question, but it gets at why many of us hesitate to take or approve offsite work. To understand whether that woman in the forest is really working, it helps to have common understanding of the word “working.”
How can there even be a question about what “working” means? Well, I can think of two ways to define it.
You Know It When You See It: Or, the Pornography Test. This is the approach I think most of use to determine whether someone is working at the office. Basically, the definition of work is engaging in tasks that are related to your job description. Under this definition, you are working if you are doing stuff that appears in a daily task list or calendar: going to meetings, writing things, and reading things. There are also actions that look like work, but may or may not be work: walking around the halls, talking at the coffee machine, staring pensively out the window. We all acknowledge that those actions may or may not be actual work, or further actual work, but that if done at the office are reasonable ways to spend some time every day.
Work is Defined by Outcomes: Or, the Show Me the Money Test. This is not a common definition of “working” in most traditional offices, including mine. With this definition, I know you have been working not because I saw you working, but because I saw the result of your work. The definition might read something like delivering things (goods, services, ideas) that are in your job description. If you deliver the goods, you are working. Time, and whether I saw you put in the time, has nothing to do with it. Spend your day in your PJs with your bunny slippers, do five loads of laundry, cook dinner for an army, and it’s all good as long as your stuff gets done.
These two ways of defining “working” each have their strengths and weaknesses. The strength of the “You Know It When You See It” approach is that it is simple. Did you show up and put in your hours? Check. You are working. You might not be working well, of course, but at least you are present and accounted for. The drawback is that you might be spending your time doing stuff that is not actually useful work. You may have a tendency to fall down rabbit holes and, like Alice, wake up to find you’ve taken a very long trip through some not very practical places.
The strength of the “Work is Defined by Outcomes” approach is that it is pretty clear if a deliverable is delivered. Yes? You are working. No? You aren’t. The drawback is two-fold: one, sometimes work isn’t delivered because of reasons other than lack of work, and two, you have to be able to identify concrete deliverables in order to say you have delivered them, and we don’t always do that. Another thing to think about when it comes to the “Work is Defined by Outcomes” approach is fairness. There are tasks that take me an awfully long time, just because of the way I am wired, that take other people no time at all, and vice versa. One of the beauties of defining work by outcome is that, presumably, when you have delivered your outcomes you can stop working without guilt. But if it takes me a day to do something that takes you half a day to do, is it fair to then let you stop working for the remainder of the day while I keep slogging away? I don’t know.
When it comes to working offsite, the “You Know It When You See It” approach isn’t practical. Yes, we can tell if someone is available by whether they are signed into Skype, answer emails, and dial into the conference call. But really, we have very little ability to see if someone is working, so we should have a way for people to show they are working. That leaves the “Show Me The Money” approach. The hardest part is defining deliverables, and agreeing upon what should constitute a good day’s work. I’ve given an example of turning a task into a concrete deliverable below. It’s hard. We should wrestle with it.
A side note here: The issue of defining work, and measuring work, isn’t the only one that determines whether offsite work is a good idea. While there are lots of technological gizmos that make working offsite possible, time together in the flesh, face to face, still has benefits. We are social animals, and we haven’t yet figured out how to use avatars to have meaningful interactions in virtual work worlds. Until then, we need to spend time together to build relationships. And there are tasks that must be done in person still, and we do a disservice to the work if we try to make offsite work fit work that is most efficiently done in a central office.
So, given all this, here are some thoughts on planning productively for offsite work. I don’t mean for being offsite more or less full time – that is an issue for another day. But for those of us who want to work offsite a day here and there, or a day or two a week, in a job that is otherwise on-site, we can make it work better if we keep in mind the definitions of “working.” I usually try to do a few things with my offsite time:
- Consolidate work that is best done offsite, and take a day. Work that is best done offsite differs between people. I like to write offsite, because I can have long chunks of time without interruptions, and a day without my hated commute is a happy day, and I’m more productive when I’m feeling happy and grateful. The end result is that I am better able to produce long or complicated documents when I am out of my office. I will sometimes plan my week by finding a day when I don’t have any in-person meetings to attend and blocking it out to write offsite, and then I’ll save my long writing or editing projects for that day.
- Define the work and its deliverables. This is useful whether you are working onsite or off, but I think it is essential when offsite. Make a list: what are you going to produce today? Say you are going to be offsite because the bulk of your day will be spent participating in a webinar. That isn’t a deliverable, but if you can’t define what will come out of that webinar, maybe you shouldn’t be spending your time on it. The discipline of turning something like a webinar into a deliverable can help you figure out whether it is worth your time. The deliverable may be something like notes to share what you learned with your team, or passing a certification quiz, or making a certain point during the online discussion. Make a list of deliverables for the day you’ll be offsite, and share it with your boss when you ask for approval to work from home (or from the forest. We can’t see you, remember?).
- Banish temptations. The allure of offsite work is getting your work done on your own time and in your own way. But it can be dangerous when “in your own way” means you get less done offsite than you would have onsite, despite your carefully crafted to-do list with clearly defined deliverables, because you give into whatever temptation there is at home: taking a nap, walking the dog, binge-watching the Great British Baking Show. Name your temptations, and then forbid them. Make some rules for yourself, and if you can’t follow them, offsite work probably isn’t wise. Save yourself from yourself, and head to the office.