Action Items at a Distance

How remote work arrangements are changing the boss-employee relationship.

A worker sits on the floor with her back against a bed while on a video conference.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thought Catalog/Unsplash, Gabriel Beaudry/Unsplash, and Frankie Cordoba/Unsplash.

Executive Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about bosses.

Many recent changes in the nature of work are cause for concern, like the technological destruction of true off hours and the rise of permalancing corresponding with the fall of jobs with benefits and pensions. But one of the more encouraging shifts taking place is toward more flexible workplaces, where bodies in a physical office aren’t the definition of staying present. According to one estimate, the number of people telecommuting in the U.S. has increased by a staggering 115 percent over the past decade, and as of July, 4.3 million employees work from home at least half the time. At Slate, there’s a whole Slack channel mostly devoted to letting others in the office know where you’re working from that day, with “wfh” the most common refrain.

The increasing prevalence of remote work has given rise to coworking spaces like WeWork, the Wing, and the Assemblage, where those who aren’t tethered to a desk in an office are tethered instead to comfy millennial-pink couches. At the same time, it’s disrupted one of the oldest relationships known to man: the boss-employee bond.

Katherine Kelly told me that when it comes to managing remotely, “there’s definitely a learning curve.” Kelly is the managing director of brand and editorial strategy of Interfolio, a higher-education technology company. She’s based in California while most of her team works out of Interfolio’s D.C. office. “When you’re remote, managing can’t just be done over the watercooler,” she said. “It forces you to do it over email, do it over Slack, and I think that ends up working in our favor. Other people can rely on, Oh yeah, I saw you, and we talked about it.” Clearly delineated tasks and workflows, daily digital meetings with the entire team, and regular check-ins utilizing every available form of communication are all necessary for Kelly to manage from afar.

While constant communication might be a drag for anyone who considers themselves a “cool boss,” all of the managers and workers I spoke to considered it a requisite of working remotely. “With any boss and any job, you want to know how you’re doing, and one of the ways that you realize how you’re doing is picking up on their body language and their body cues,” said English professor Nathan R. Elliott. “You can get paranoid when you’re living a thousand miles away.” In the years after his son was born in Canada, Elliott taught remotely for Georgia Perimeter College and said he never actually met his department chairwoman face to face. Even with nearly constant visual cues, it’s easy to misinterpret what your bosses’ actions might mean, which is why there are dozens of pieces out there promising to give beleaguered employees the key to finding out whether their manager likes or hates them. Without those half-smiles or jocular shoulder pats to overanalyze, employees can really work themselves into a tizzy wondering whether that terse email is a direct sign they’re about to get the boot or just the result of a disappointing Sweetgreen salad.

That kind of anxiety is only heightened when a real problem arises, as it did when Elliott flunked a student for plagiarizing a paper and the student complained to his department chairwoman. Even though Elliott felt his relationship with his boss was on solid ground, the distance between them ended up dragging out a situation that could’ve, he thought, “been taken care of in two seconds” if he were on campus. “And that’s not a boss issue, that’s a remote job issue in general,” Elliott added. “Even when everyone’s on high alert and responding very quickly to time differences and schedule differences, everything’s in this perpetual lag, which puts you in this state of emotional distress.” While his department chairwoman ended up siding with him, Elliott felt that she would’ve come to that decision quicker if they had interacted face to face beforehand. “I don’t think she would’ve given the guy any credence if I had just been on campus right there.”

Still, Elliott believes that the benefits of working remotely far outweigh the cons, and he’s not alone. A flexible work schedule, the freedom to putter around the house, and the ability to work from anywhere are all advantages that remote employees are loath to give up. For workers based in an office, having a remote boss presents an opportunity for independence. “I don’t perform well when I have someone constantly hovering,” said one writer who works in scientific publishing. “When I don’t have someone above me constantly hovering, it frees me up to be more available to the newer people on the team.”

The challenge of nourishing a remote mentor relationship, one that might not only determine career trajectory but job satisfaction, also came up repeatedly in my interviews. “It’s harder to track how people are advancing in their careers and whether or not they’re feeling fulfillment from the job [when they’re remote],” said Arwa Gunja, executive producer of the WNYC’s daily podcast The Takeaway. “I actually do think that is a harder challenge: to understand what it is that they want in order to grow into and to develop in the field.” While both Gunja and Kelly cited their annual review periods as an important opportunity to check in with their remote employees face to face (along with regular attempts to get everyone in a room together a few times a year), they both also made clear that those moments of face time wouldn’t be as fruitful without consistent communication. In other words, physical presence is only as valuable as the rapport that’s been built before it.

As technology allows more and more employees to never set foot in an office, managers and employees shouldn’t shudder at the thought of navigating the remote relationship. As Kelly notes, just getting away from the social panopticon of open offices and having the simple perception of freedom makes work more enjoyable, despite working the same eight to nine hours as her colleagues. “Whatever difficulty is there is overcome by how much I like not commuting,” she laughed. The old standby adage about the supremacy of face time isn’t necessarily true—there are plenty of bosses who manage to be terrible despite sitting less than 100 feet from your desk. If a little extra effort and conscientiousness are all that’s required to boost the ranks of the abysmally low 15 percent of workers who feel engaged at work, then maybe “wfh” should become the new “synergy.”