CIO Leadership

The One Question CIOs Can Ask That Will Change Remote Work Discussions

The question of fairness in remote work continues to be raised. It’s a distraction from the real need and the right question. Ask this, and you change the nature of the discussion once and for all.

Scott Smeester


May 18, 2023

The question of fairness in remote work continues to be raised. It’s a distraction. Ask this question instead and change the conversation.

“You don’t want fair. You want favor.” 

Three situations arose this week that prompted me to address a theme I continue to hear in remote work conversations with CIOs and CEOs. 

The first situation had nothing to do with remote work. Instead, a CIO was talking to me about needing to persuade the rest of the C-Suite to buy-in to a project of hers. But I noticed that no one seemed to be asking the right questions. The issue was more budget focused than business focused.

The second catalyst is that I am preparing for a webinar presentation. One of the points of the webinar is asking the right questions to get at real needs. You readers are smart; you can see the theme emerging.

The third motivator was a post on Linked In where a person was asking for input about Elon Musk’s assertion that allowing some employees to work from home while others could not was a moral issue. 

I replied (it’s not a moral issue). In response to me, a man shared his own experience. By nature of his work, he had to initially be in the office all the time. After a promotion, he now primarily works from home. He said that his learning disability is far better served by working at home, and he is able to be much more focused when he works. 

In the number of conversations I have been in surrounding the issue, most have to do with:

  • Measuring productivity of remote work
  • Managing remote workers
  • The effect of remote work on culture
  • The disadvantage of remote work as it relates to mentoring and development
  • Salary or cost of living adjustments for remote workers
  • Fairness of remote work to onsite workers

I’m sure you can add to the list. 

It’s the last one that seems to be lingering longer in recent conversations. What is fair? Is it fair that some employees work from home and others are required to be in-office/on-site?

You Don’t Want Fair

It’s baseball season right now. A ball is hit. It lands inside the lines or out, it is fair or foul.

Fair has to do with being inside pre-determined boundaries. As several CIOs said to me, their argument about fairness is simple: people apply for a job knowing the rules. If the nature of the work requires being onsite, so be it. 

I don’t argue with that. 

And it misses the point. 

Fair is an expectation. People are not motivated by being treated fairly. They can be upset by being treated unfairly, but fair itself is hardly a catalyst to going above and beyond. 

Employees turn this back on employers, right? The Quiet Quitting phase is about doing the work contracted for and not more. 

Fair has to do with limits. Said another way, fair is limiting.

You Want Favor

Favor has the idea of going beyond what is due. 

It is a benefit. An advantage. Something that promotes a person’s best interest. And it’s hard to box that in or put lines around it. Favor, by its nature, operates outside the lines. It is unlimited.

Favor is unique to a person or to a group. We enjoy being the object of someone’s favor.

This is what I used to tell my kids. When they would complain about something being unfair, (as in a brother or sister receiving something they did not), I talked to them about favor. “Do you really all want the same thing, the same way, all the time?”

Of course not. 

I do not treat my children unfairly. But favor for one is different in experience than for the other.

The question that changes the remote work conversation is: “What does favor look like for people who work from home, and what does favor look like for people in the office or onsite?”

We are not promoting inequity. We are recognizing the favor that is innate to each situation and expanding our thinking on the favor that can be found in each. 

We do not focus on have/have not; we maximize the positive each group can experience by virtue of the context they are in.

We change the question from “What is fair?” to “What is favor?”

What, by nature of being in the office, is distinctly favorable?

(Don’t even get me started. Well, okay, how about connection, culture, things that are caught not taught, closeness, celebration, community, close proximity to leaders, coffee - and that’s just the Cs).

When business shifts their focus to what is lost, and mitigates that loss by what is fair, the wrong questions get asked. 

To work from home or not is still a decision about business outcomes and the people, platforms and processes needed to make them happen. When it comes to the people, even the people aren’t looking for what is fair. They are looking for what is in their favor.

That hasn’t ever changed. It won’t change. And that makes it the question to focus on. 

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