Workplace Culture

37Signal’s Jason Fried Dishes on Controlling Remote Workers

Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO of 37signals, says he realized that the best way to keep top talent was to let them work from anywhere.

Long before the uproar over Yahoo Inc.’s ban on telecommuting, Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO of Chicago-based Web development firm 37signals, realized that the best way to keep top talent was to let them work from anywhere. More than half of the firm’s 40 employees telecommute from far-flung locales like Oregon and Russia.

Fried recently co-authored “Remote,” a book to help employers understand their options. Workforce talked with Fried about working remotely.

Jason FriedWorkforce: Marissa Mayer’s ban on telecommuting last year brought the issue to light, but you started working on the book months before that. What prompted you to write it?
Jason Fried: People have been hearing about how we work remotely and asking, ‘How do you do that? Or, how can you do that or, how do you know work is getting done?’ A light bulb went off and we said, ‘Let’s put all this together in a book because we keep getting the same questions over and over again from so many different people.’

WF: So, why and how do you do it at 37signals?
Fried: What’s most important to us is hiring the best people we can find. It’s unlikely that the best people for the job happen to live down the street. When you limit yourself to hiring just people who live nearby, you’re limiting your ability to hire the best in the world.

WF: Why are many employers so reluctant to let people telecommute?
Fried: The No. 1 concern is, ‘How do you know someone is doing their job when you can’t see them?’ Seeing someone has nothing to do with whether or not they are doing their work. There are so many people who are in the office all day long not doing their work. The answer is you look at the work. Most work today can be shared remotely. All those things can be reviewed remotely, critiqued and discussed remotely.

WF: What role does company culture play in the success or failure of telecommuting?
Fried: If you care about culture, then you must care about trust. But if you don’t trust people to get their work done unless you’re watching them, then you really don’t trust them. These facts don’t line up. You must trust the people that you are hiring. As long as work is engaging and interesting, people will be happy to do the work. The reason people think an employee might slack off is because they are not being given interesting work. But people are going to slack off wherever they are.

WF: You write about co-worker jealousy around telecommuting — an issue that we’ve written about. What can an employer do to prevent this?
Fried: Remote working has to be available to everybody. Everybody needs to have the option unless you physically can’t because your job requires physical interaction with a customer. Offer it to everybody but say, ‘Let’s try it one day a month and see what happens.’ When you find the company isn’t going out of business, then take it up to two days a month and then one day a week. You find a balance.

Rita Pyrillis is a Workforce senior editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Pyrillis on Twitter at @RitaPyrillis.