What Dame Shirley’s TED Talk Teaches Us About Remote Work

What Dame Shirley’s TED Talk Teaches Us About Remote Work

Good business advice about remote work can come from anywhere—a lunch among peers, at a conference, even in an elevator at a convention.

And there’s one more to add to that list—Dame Stephanie Shirley’s TED Talk.

Dame Stephanie Shirley (a.k.a. Steve to those who know her well) began her life as a refugee escaping Nazi Germany with her sister. She wound up living in London, where she went on to “make my life worth saving, and then I got on with it.”

In the 1960s, she broke through gender issues of the time by setting up a software business that employed only women.

Although there was a glass ceiling, Shirley wanted progress for women, so she recruited professionally qualified women who had left the industry due to marriage or pregnancy, and then structured them into a home-working organization.

Not only that, but Shirley’s company also pioneered new flexible work methods such as job shares, profit shares, and co-ownership.

She disguised the domestic and part-time nature of the staff by offering fixed prices, something that wasn’t done at the time.

“Who would have guessed that the programming of the black box flight recorder of supersonic Concorde would have been done by a bunch of women working in their own homes?” said Shirley.

Her company designed another program that was eventually adopted by NATO.

And her company, Freelance Programmers, was started on a dining room table and financed with $100 and by her labor and borrowing against the house.

She employed only women, including gay and transgender women, to work with her company.

Dame Shirley’s TED Talk can teach us a lot about remote work. Here are some of the biggest points:

1. Trust your remote workers.

One of the biggest fears that managers might have about having a remote workforce is the obvious: how do you know if your team is actually working?

Dame Shirley said of her hiring process: “We used a simple trust the staff approach and the telephone. We would ask job applicants, ‘Do you have access to a telephone?’”

Jokes aside, her message is clear—you should always hire the best talent out there—and then let them do their job.

By utilizing key metrics and/or adopting a R.O.W.E. (Results Only Work Environment) mentality, you can track your workers’ progress without ever having to micromanage them from afar.

In turn, by showing your employees respect and that they are valued members of your team, they will work harder and be more loyal to you and the company.

2. Don’t prejudge a potential employee.

Let’s face it: some bosses are reticent to hire mothers for fear that they won’t be as focused as male workers might be, or that they’ll leave the company at some point if they want to have more children.

Dame Shirley specifically hired women who had taken a break from their careers to have children or who had just gotten married because she saw the potential in them.

So if one of your leading job candidates is a working mother, give her the same consideration that you would any other employee without bias because she has children.

3. Offer options.

Sure, your remote company offers full-time and part-time telecommuting jobs, but your flexible work options don’t have to end there.

There are many types of flexible jobs in the flex work world, such as freelance or contract jobs, job sharing (where two part-time employees split the work of one full-time job), and seasonal jobs, just to name a few.

Give your future remote employees (as well as your current workers) a variety of work options in order to attract future top-tier talent and retain the workers you already have.

Dame Shirley—and her TED Talk—is inspirational in nature for so many reasons:

  • For being a refugee.
  • For launching a multi-billion dollar business comprised only of female workers at a time when women were expected to be stay-at-home mothers.
  • For her early adoption of flexible work.
  • For her staggering philanthropic work.

But even 50+ years later, the principles that she used to found her company still stand true, and should be an inspiration to every remote company on the right way to go about remote work.


By Jennifer Parris | May 10, 2016 | Categories: Remote Management


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