Remote Work Interviews

Conversations with leaders and innovators about how industries and organizations think about the future of remote work.
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Katie Burke: Chief People Officer at HubSpot
Why Telecommuting and Remote Work Should Be a Legal Right
Mitch Turck: Transportation Innovation Evangelist and Consultant
October 15, 2019
Interview by Sophia Bernazzani

Mitch Turck is a transportation innovation evangelist. He consults on transportation reform and change management across multiple industries.

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Mitch Turck consults on transportation reform and change management across multiple industries. His personal project, the Proof Of Required Travel Act, aims to make telecommuting a civil right under Title VII employment discrimination law.

Owl Labs (OL): Tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are in your career today.

Mitch Turck (MT): I've held a dozen roles in a half-dozen sectors, but the common thread has been change management. I go where change is welcome – right now, that's in the transportation & mobility space, where a lot of folks are rethinking the impacts of how we get from A to B.

OL: Can you tell us about how you got into working remotely?

MT: When I got to college, I started working on digital side projects with a few folks who lived in different time zones. One of the projects was called 'Modern Things', a collective for musicians. This was back when it was actually expensive to upload stuff to the internet.

We all worked really well together as a virtual team, but what really struck me was that even when some of them moved to Vienna or Hawaii, it didn't impact our collaboration or productivity. So I really came out of the gate with the mindset that work is a part of your life you compartmentalize, not the other way around.

OL: You're currently lobbying to get support for the PORT Act. Can you tell us a bit about that and why you're so committed to getting it passed?

MT: The PORT Act is actually pretty straightforward. A lot of folks hear about legislation and assume there's a 500-page document involved, but it's actually a simple concept amending pre-existing civil rights laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Essentially, PORT says:

A company can't make an employment decision about a person (hiring, firing, promotions and raises, etc.) based on their refusal to commute into a worksite, as long as the person can perform the functions of the job, and as long as the employer wouldn't endure an unreasonable burden to accommodate the person.

In short: as long as you can do your job remotely and the employer doesn't have to bend over backward to make it so, you would have the right to telecommute anytime and all the time.

PORT even goes so far as to include a third exception, taken from the government's Telework Enhancement Act: if your employer can prove that your performance is suffering as a telecommuter, they can bring you back into the office. I added that to curb all the pushback such a bill would otherwise receive from people who dismiss remote workers as being lazy or irresponsible… which is ironically why this bill falls under civil rights in the first place.

In short, [the PORT Act says] as long as you can do your job remotely and the employer doesn't have to bend over backward to make it so, you would have the right to telecommute anytime and all the time.

OL: Was there something specific that inspired you to get behind this?

MT: I work in the transportation space, where everyone is talking about solving climate issues, socio-economic issues, and traffic and congestion issues. There's certainly no shortage of solutions, whether it's getting people to take the bus, ridesharing, scooters, or whatever the case may be.

One of the most impactful things we could be doing – if not the most impactful – is also the easiest, fastest and cheapest thing: telling people who don't need to be in the office to stop commuting. It's such an obvious solution that I was shocked to see how many folks in the sector laughed it off because of their underlying prejudice about remote work.

That's what spurred me to say, 'Okay, we're past the point of waiting for people to address their own cognitive dissonance. This needs to be what we're doing for the climate, for the economy, for communities … and the best way to get it done is to address what's holding it back: discrimination.'

OL: What do we stand to gain if something like the PORT Act is adopted?

MT: What makes telecommuting on a mass scale like PORT so valuable is that it lets us rethink how we use our land and move around our towns. Roads, buildings, parking lots, transit services ... none of these systems will be able to plan for the cultural shift towards virtual work if telecommuting freedoms have to be won on an individual basis over the next 25 years. It's the "death by a thousand cuts" problem. But, if your 40-story office building is half-empty tomorrow because your workforce started exercising their PORT rights, that's a future you can embrace strategically.

OL: One aspect of the PORT Act was about changing the perception of remote work from being a job perk or a benefit to just being a work arrangement. I want to know why that distinction is so critical to you.

MT: Before there were protected groups, if you were of a certain religion, gender, were pregnant, or discharged from the military, employers could say, 'We don't hire those kinds of people because of whatever reason.' Those reasons aren't defensible concerning someone's ability to do a job — and that's why protections against employment discrimination now exist, known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

When you hear someone say, 'I don't allow telecommuting because the employees will just slack off,' they're discriminating against a particular group. Even though it might seem like working remotely is about location, not identity, the people who discriminate against it have made remote working an identity. They have opinions about teleworkers without actually knowing anything about the particular people in that group, and they use those opinions to make employment decisions without giving people a fair shot.

There's blatant discrimination from employers like we just mentioned, and then there are policies that seem fair but perpetuate discrimination upon further analysis (known as "disparate impact"). For example, let's say you request to work remotely. Your employer says they have nothing against telecommuting, however, it's part of their policy that all digital work needs to be done on company servers that are located in-house and can be physically managed by their IT people. So, no telecommuting for you.

You might hear that and assume it's a valid reason to refuse telecommuting freedoms. But then you think about it and say, 'Wait ... what about the field sales teams working in airports and client offices? what about the constantly-traveling executives using open wi-fi signals in coffee shops and hotels? What about all the employees answering emails on their cellphones at night?' Either this policy doesn't actually exist, or it's so loosely enforced that the only reason it was put on the books was to avoid dealing with telecommute requests. That's disparate impact, regardless of intent.

Anyone who has worked remotely for a day has probably witnessed this kind of discrimination, but because telecommuting isn't protected, this disparate treatment is openly considered par for the course. The whole idea of it being a "perk" to work from home is discriminatory.

One of the most impactful things we could be doing – if not the most impactful – is also the easiest, fastest and cheapest thing: telling people who don't need to be in the office to stop commuting.

OL: What are some of the ways that companies can start embracing the spirit of the PORT Act even if it hasn't been passed into law?

MT: There's nothing stopping companies from making PORT their company policy. Make commuting an employee choice instead of a requirement. It's not hard to do logistically or financially, it's totally reversible, and it could transform your company.

If they can't stomach that, they can start by reviewing their policies for discrimination. For instance, if you have a policy that requires teleworkers to clock in on their computers by 9:00 AM, but your clock in policy for on-site employees is non-existent, you might want to take a look at that.

OL: Is part of the solution being a bit clearer with prospective job applicants who want to understand what they're getting themselves into in the first place? Or are you seeing this as more of an issue with people in established jobs, or also an issue with people trying to find new talent?

MT: I think any employer who is embracing virtual work knows they're ahead of the game – PORT is really for the majority of folks out there who don't think telecommuting is a thing they can do because they're afraid to ask for it due to known discrimination.

Those who work remotely are still somewhat of a fringe group, especially those who work remotely 24/7. The majority of the folks I'm looking to impact, who'd change things from a climate and economic standpoint, are those who don't think remote work is feasible simply because of the power their company holds over them.

OL: How can things like the PORT Act impact organizations and their employees in a positive way? What do people stand to gain from a law like this passing?

MT: There have been numerous studies around the immediate economic benefit and those studies don't even go into the macroeconomic benefit. No one is exploring much around the impact of having a community or city of people who don't travel to work. Even at the individual employee level, the go-to stat is that the employee could save more than $2,000 a year; certainly more if it allowed them to reduce the number of cars in their household.

For most people, that is a legitimate raise. It's usually even better from the employer's side, as they stand to save about $7,000 - $11,000 a year in facilities costs per person alone. But thinking more broadly, if you can shut down half the floors of your office building because all of those people are working from home, then that becomes an asset. You can plan the space for other purposes and it means you've drastically reduced a lot of your costs, not to mention reduced emissions which are increasingly part of the conversation. The economic benefits are obvious, straightforward, and immediate which is important. The ROI is proven almost immediately. Remote work studies say that people are more productive when they're at home. Some people won't be, of course, but, for the most part, employees are vastly more productive and engaged and that seems like an obvious win for everybody.

When managers deal with telecommuters, this is arguably the best test of their ability to manage people and a test corporate culture. Making folks come into an office is a huge leadership crutch. As a manager, I don't have to give you a quarterly review of your performance and have real talk about your aspirations, what's holding you back, and where your opportunities are because you're here and we talk every day, right?

That's the excuse many supervisors internalize, and as a result, there's a huge percentage of employees who don't receive relevant and regular performance feedback, which is preposterous. Telecommuting brings that to the forefront – you don't have any interaction with people unless you actively attempt to do it. How are you prioritizing work, how are you emphasizing engagement with your team, how are you instituting feedback and motivation and collaboration?

These are all the things you have to start from scratch with – and there are a lot of tools out there that'll obviously help on that front, but it really forces you to manage people well, which is not something that on-site work has ever emphasized.

There's nothing stopping companies from making PORT their company policy. Make commuting an employee choice instead of a requirement. It's not hard to do logistically or financially, it's totally reversible, and it could transform your company.

OL: To your earlier point about some of the economic benefits of remote work, we recently found in our State of Remote Work Report that almost a quarter of employees in the U.S. would take a 10% pay cut to work remotely. We were pretty surprised by that and I was curious to see if you were surprised by that finding too.

MT: I'm not surprised at all. I've seen other studies to support that, and as someone who helps many folks negotiate remote work, it's one of those things that really sticks out to me because I know it's one of the most effective ways to negotiate. From a discriminatory standpoint, it makes no sense. You will be a more productive employee and you're going to ask for less money. But it's still a recommendation I make pretty regularly to people because that's the situation we're in today.

I usually say offer 10-15%, but do your own math; if you're willing to take a 25% pay cut to drastically improve your life then you should definitely do it. Personally, in my last role, I didn't necessarily take a pay cut to work remotely, but I offered to convert 40% of my compensation into an annual performance bonus, just to put people's minds at ease that I would be productive as a telecommuter. It's arguably the fastest path to negotiating a remote working role, but it's unfortunate that it should be that way because, again, there is massive proof showing people are as productive or more so when they work remotely.

OL: What's a myth you hear about remote workers a lot that you'd like to dispel?

MT: The biggest myth is that it's new or different from what employees are currently doing. If you primarily work at a computer with digital tools – which is what most human beings in white-collar jobs are doing – then most of your day is effectively spent teleworking.

If you send an email, use the internet, use Microsoft Word, Excel, Google Sheets, a CRM tool or anything like that, if you're attending meetings over the phone or virtually because a client is not there, all those things are identical to working from your home or working remotely anywhere. You just happen to be doing it at a desk that you chose to drive half an hour to. Everyone in these white-collar or knowledge worker roles is effectively telecommuting most of the time – they're just doing it in a poorly structured way.

OL: What do you personally love the most about working remotely?

MT: Working asynchronously is huge for me and it's not always something that someone can do just because they're telecommuting. It's something I enjoy as part of my work, and a lot of the work I do is either under the banner of strategy or creativity or research – all of those things need a fair amount of asynchronous time and isolation to be done well. My best work usually happens in environments and scenarios that a 9-to-6 office job would never present.

In the broader sense though, I think what it does for everyone is give you your life back at no expense to your work. It's an entirely new perspective on life that, for many folks I know, is the most valuable career decision they've ever made.

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