6 Arguments for Adopting a Flexible Remote Work Policy

Soundtrack: “Trance Frendz” by Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwS9YmF22Po

This morning, I got out of bed and walked to my office to wake my laptop up from sleep. Like today, for the past 5 years I’ve had a 60-second commute. The four years prior I had a 5-minute walking commute from my apartment to my office in Newton Corner, Mass. Prior to that I endured another 4 years of hour-long commutes across the San Francisco Bay Area, only to arrive at work irritable and feeling behind the gun before the day even began.

My second month at BU began to make it clear that what’s in the way of adopting a flexible work policy within our organizations is not quality of work or technological capacity, but rather cultural nostalgia. The infrastructure supporting remote work continues to evolve to support the human experience. My remote work toolkit (libraries edition) has six  essential categories:

  1. Hardware: Laptop with 8+ hour battery life under heavy use, Wi-fi Hotspot, Noise-cancelling headphones, Back-up, non-battery dependent headphones
  2. Productivity: Microsoft Office 365 (or Google Suite), Things Task Management
  3. Meetings: Zoom, Google Hangout, Conference Phone Line
  4. Messaging: Slack, Teams, Telegram Secure Messaging
  5. Travel: Google Flights, Google Maps, Lyft, mTicket (Mobile Boston Commuter Rail Passes), Concur, Weather, rewards accounts with all major airlines and hotel chains
  6. Health: Strava, YouVersion

Conversations about remote work or flexible work usually begin with a small group of proponents at an organization, and usually die out once met with the resistance of the old guard. The dialogue tends to focus on all of the reasons why it shouldn’t be adopted, as opposed to discussing the opportunities. Below, I make several arguments for organizations to understand why a robust, flexible work policy is not just as a fringe-benefit, but a strategic investment into future-proofing your organization.

1. Smart Recruitment

The most common argument for adopting a flexible work policy is to attract the broadest pool of talent. By limiting the applicant pool to the percentage of people who are willing to relocate to where you are, or who already live there, are we unlocking the true potential of our teams and getting the highest ROI on our compensation investment?

Given the season of life I’m in, living in my home state of Louisiana is something that I wouldn’t trade for the world. An institution 1,500 miles away was able to recruit me for a uniquely qualified position because they decided to invest in a flexible work policy as a way to future-proof themselves.

2. Smart Retention

Life happens and seasons change. To retain our best talent, our work policy has to be flexible enough to accommodate new circumstances among our workforce. Sure, in the eyes of an employer, it would be ideal for our workers’ situations to be the most predictable and consistent. But childbirth changes things. Changes in spousal or partner employment situation. Taking care of aging parents. Financial ups and downs. Inevitable events that rewire an employee’s ability to physically come to work should not call in to question their commitment to their work and the organization.

In 2014, I was forced to choose working for my employer or moving home to help take care of a family member. Looking back on that decision, it was 100% avoidable, and I have no regrets. 

3. Equity and Gender Parity

Women taking on the role of caretaker for their own children or other family members is more common than my situation. Maternity Leave policies are a factor in flexible work environments that can be used to increase equity and gender parity in the workplace. To not place pressure on new parents to return to work too soon, or to have to choose work over their child, strengthens commitment and produces greater output from that staff member.

4. Better Communication and Inclusion

Including underrepresented voices in the decision-making process at a macro level is great, but on a conversation-by-conversation, meeting-by-meeting level is arguably more important. Many employees don’t contribute in meetings not because they lack ideas or aren’t engaged in their work, but are not comfortable competing for airtime among extroverts.

Remote work necessitates written, asynchronous communication, which also moves conversations from the serendipitous hallway chat, to the serendipitous private or group message thread.

Starting off my 4th stint as a remote employee has made me realize the importance of written communication – not just in relation to a given meeting – but as a culture. Documenting ideas, thoughts and minutes improves organizational memory and increases opportunities for contribution and engagement.

5. Greater Diversity

The diversity conversation on campuses is beginning to shift from an acknowledgement of a problem, to formulating an action plan. Part of the action plan is to wrestle with the larger question of roadblocks preventing people from underrepresented backgrounds from applying for jobs or accepting offers to work at our institution. Geography is a large factor in this equation, as people are not only moving to a location for work, but also to live.

6. Succession Planning

One of my first projects at BU last month was designing a staff offboarding process at the libraries, and managing it end-to-end for one of our retirees. This was an informative process that made it clear to me that a formal flexible work policy would demonstrably improve succession planning.

When employees leave on good terms, they are often left with no options on helping the organization transition despite willing to. Institutional knowledge is lost, and the team is forced to make a rough transition end of business on their final day. Adopting a flexible work policy would allow staff members to propose a reduced work schedule, from a location of their preference, to aid in their successor’s onboarding.

Conclusion

Having experienced virtually every combination of work arrangement, you probably have gathered that I’m an unabashed proponent of organization’s work policy being robust and flexible. If we believe that each employee is unique unto their own, and that we’ve hired the right person for the role, an undervalued perk is to offer that person the ability to work from wherever they want. This is not the same as organizations in Silicon Valley who adopt 100% remote policies to cut costs on real estate, but rather adopting the value that place of work will not hinder our organization from recruiting and retaining the best talent.

EIR @ BUL: Month 1

A few weeks ago, I landed at Boston Logan Airport and caught the free Silver Line to South Station. I then bought a CharlieTicket from the kiosk for the week. This was my third paper CharlieTicket in two months, and I was starting to wonder how sustainable this was. One day after dinner that week I was walking to the T with my boss when I shared this. He told me to hold on a moment, and walked over to the booth agent. After a quick exchange, she handed him a hard plastic CharlieCard (there’s a difference) that he handed to me before we started walking toward the exit.

For people not from New York, Boston, San Francisco or another evolved transit hub, know that there are levels to public transit.

It hit me that I was an outsider, and like in many parts of life, there was an entire world that I needed an insider to show me the ropes. What made this meta was an identical experience taking place in parallel during my onboarding at Boston University Libraries. Having worked as a vendor with libraries since 2010, I thought I developed an “insider’s view” into the information profession. But after a month into my appointment as an EIR at BU, it’s become crystal clear that there’s an entire world to research libraries a vendor simply isn’t privy to.

Time to write and think is few and far in between nowadays, but I consider it a part of my work to document my experience and share learnings to people studying the future of work in libraries. Here are a few initial impressions I can’t shake after 30 days.

I’ve learned more about the academic research enterprise and its circumstance in the past 30 days than in the past 9 years.

It’s one thing to get glimpses of the research enterprise through a meeting with a library or listening to a presentation at a conference. It’s an entirely other thing to jump waist-deep into the raging rapid that is an ARL, AAU, R1, large research operation. Weekly meetings, committee participation, attending industry gatherings, and performing deep work associated with the organization’s future is shaping up to be an executive MBA program for aspiring library leaders.

Working in a community rather than a market affords opportunities to innovate as opposed to iterate.

After getting two degrees in library automation and publishing (2, 4-year stints at major vendors), I got so burned out by the bickering, finger-pointing, and showmanship symptomatic of commercial vendors that I began to question my career choices. It’s easy to lose sight of the people and work that makes you excited about libraries when constantly being tasked to out do the “bad guy”. Because you’re constantly studying the competitor’s moves, you’re never able to actually innovate – it’s just varying degrees of iteration to do something cheaper or more novel without realizing the real competitor in the room is actually in the mirror. (More on vendors competing themselves away in another post). On the other hand, it’s revitalizing to be a part of an organization where the mandate is to literally determine the best ways to serve researchers and increase their impact.

People – not resources, collections, or programs – are a library’s most important asset.

The debate on this point will heat up in the coming years as we see the face and age of librarianship continue to shift. But I’m quite confident in my stance that the only force multiplier research libraries have in today’s increasingly complex operating environment are its investments in the development of its people. Our primary challenge then becomes unlocking the potential of our teams by sharing the onus of the library’s evolution with everyone on board, as opposed to a handful of deputies and managers.

A vendor’s orientation, concerns, and goals are distinct, and perhaps anti-thetical to the concerns of the 21st century research enterprise.

Another stark realization that I haven’t been able to shake is how out of sync commercial interests are from that of the library. Of course, the utility of products and services that meet the needs of libraries makes a positive impact. But on this vendor impact spectrum, there comes a point in which the utility becomes the threat. This is because commercial vendors have lost sight of their purpose and why they were created in the first place, replacing that purpose with the profit motive. Businesses don’t exist to create profit – they create profit in order to exist. Why they exist is a different reason altogether that the profit motive has obfuscated. The victims in this of course are libraries and patrons.

More to share, but in the meantime, there’s more work to be done.

Every consultant has an orientation. Here’s mine.

Consulting Orientation Map

I’ve been consulting research libraries on software decisions on behalf of commercial vendors since 2010. Last summer, I decided to go out on my own. During that 9 year period, I learned that as consultants, when asked for our advice or opinion on a topic, there are certain biases and predispositions that guide our decisions on what to recommend, to which type of organization, and at what point during the engagement. When working for a commercial vendor, the calculus on this is straightforward: do what is in the best interest of the employer, which at times presents conflicts of judgment, albeit less often than people think. But as an independent consultant, there’s an opportunity to develop our own orientation separate and apart of any organization’s mission.

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