Last Updated Sep 20, 2010 2:39 PM EDT
This perception cuts two ways: either those who work remotely are not shackled by the normal conventions of the traditional office or workplace (this is the " death to the necktie and all who wear them!" school of thought) or they are undisciplined and slothful ("they're at home in their bunny slippers while we do the real work"). As with most such polarities, neither is entirely true -- or inaccurate.
In defense of the pajamas
Different workers have different work styles, and much of what's appropriate depends on the work being done. If the only thing you're measuring is the output, it shouldn't matter if the person doing the work is in their pajamas, a three-piece suit or a smoking jacket and ascot, as long as the work gets done on time and at a high level of quality.
Another reason managers need to worry less about what their people are wearing is that remote workers tend to spend more time actually working. This includes attending conference calls at all hours of the day or night to accommodate timezones and teammates scattered hither and yon. If you're going to drag me out of bed at 5 a.m. to be on a call with the plant in Dusseldorf, don't expect me to be showered. In fact, you'll be lucky if I've had enough coffee at that point to even be functional.
Studies suggest that remote workers put in more actual productive hours than people who commute into an office or central location, so get off our backs and worry about more important things, like fixing the VPN so I can actually get some work done.
In defense of shirts with buttons
Of course, perception is often the better part of reality, and if you're wearing a Motley Crue T-shirt on a video conference with your VP of Sales, odds are there's some perception there that won't work to your advantage. Your communication style and the messages you send still matter, and in some ways they matter even more because your colleagues can't see first hand how hard you work, so your opportunities to create strong positive impressions are limited.
Moreover, everyone discovers what works for them, and habits help dictate behavior. For example, whether they can see me or not, on days when I'm spending time consulting with customers or delivering training, I dress in what I refer to as my "big-boy clothes." The routine of showering, grooming and dressing like a professional helps put me in the right frame of mind to act like one. Sure, it's a mental trick I pull on myself, but it works for me. (Be honest -- without some level of denial and self-delusion, most of us would never get out of bed in the morning.)
It often takes a while for remote workers -- especially those who are new to it-- to find what works for them. As managers, we need to check in with our people to see how they're coping. Are they finding a work style that works for them? What are the best practices that will help them strike the balance between the freedom and comfort of working remotely and the routine and professionalism that you expect in their work? There are plenty of slackers in Armani suits -- and a lot of hard workers in bunny slippers.
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