For the better part of the past five years, I’ve been a remote worker living in Hawaii and consulting with mainland companies. During that time, the biggest challenge hasn’t been interacting with coworkers or getting the job done, it’s been overcoming the typically skeptical attitude toward remote working in general.

What’s become apparent, however, is that remote working could be a game-changing economic force for our state. So why don’t more companies allow it?

Hawaii has everything that would seem to make it ideal for embracing the remote worker: great climate, relaxing lifestyle, difficulty finding skilled workers and horrendous traffic. But a quick search of the top job boards, searching for “work from home” and “hawaii,” shows mostly lower-level sales roles and not much else (outside of the get-rich-quick and quasi-scam types of jobs).

Cars head westbound on H1 with freeway widening project at left of the photo.  19 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

With Honolulu’s heavy traffic, you’d think remote working opportunities would be a higher priority for the state and the private sector.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

With our unmatched attractiveness and unmoving traffic, why hasn’t Hawaii become a haven for people who work from home, yet still enjoy the lifestyle?

Why doesn’t the state offer incentives for large local corporations to allow even flex hours, let alone work-from-home options, to relieve some of the traffic congestion?

Why are the state’s tech-focused economic development dollars not specifically devoted to remote work, collaboration, and communication software?

There’s Remote, And Then There’s Too Remote

Working remotely from Hawaii is not without challenges. First, there’s the challenge of finding opportunities — both with local and mainland companies — that allow you to be remote. Second, there’s the challenge of being able to work effectively from outside of an office and away from all of your coworkers. But those challenges exist whether you live in Maine or Makakilo.

Living in Hawaii adds additional challenges, some of which you might not expect. 

When interacting with clients and coworkers, I try to avoid letting the rank and file know where I live. Once they find out, it’s a constant barrage of comments like, “Are you drinking a Mai Tai right now?” and, “Are you calling us from the beach?” Playful, for sure, but always with an underlying message implying that you cannot possibly get any work done if you live in Hawaii.

Passing showers blanketed Waikiki's landmark Diamond Head with rainbow in foreground.  9 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Mainlanders want to know: Can you really be working if you’re in Hawaii?

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There’s also the real impact of being so many hours behind the mainland. Working effectively with East Coast clients is a challenge. You’re just starting your day while they’re already winding down. If you find a good situation, where both sides are flexible and realize the productivity gains, it’s easy to use your few overlapping hours to exchange statuses, quickly discuss next steps, and really take advantage of the follow-the-sun model. (Of course, there’s the occasional and unavoidable 5 a.m. Hawaii time conference call, so be prepared.)

If you have West Coast co-workers, it’s a bit easier but you’re still starting your day in Hawaii just as they’re popping out for lunch in California. However, I think it’s nice to start your day with a full plate of tasks already passed over from a mainland team. On the other end of the day, being in Hawaii gives you about a half-day of uninterrupted time to focus, which is always nice. 

Our distance from the mainland coupled with our paradise vacation allure combine to work against you as a professional, however. The reason, from the employer’s or client’s perspective, is the “optics” of paying someone who lives in Hawaii. I’ve heard from potential clients things like, “We’re OK with a remote consultant, but Hawaii is a little too remote,” and “Oh, we could never justify paying a consultant who lives in Hawaii.” But, if you’re good enough, talent can overcome any optics.

If You’re Not in the Office, You’re Not Working

For many people, especially in management roles, the immediate reaction to remote working is the fear that employees won’t be working at home, they’ll be slacking off. To that, I say you’ve hired the wrong employees. They can surf Facebook as easily at work as they can at home. But that’s why employers have Internet filters at work, so they can restrict which sites employees visit, you might be thinking. OK then, can’t they just surf on their iPhone while sitting at their desk? Chit-chat at the watercooler? Take too many coffee breaks?

The point is that the cause of an underperforming worker isn’t an issue of location, it’s a performance issue and it’s a management issue. 

Sure, some people cannot work from home or a coffee shop every day. Remote working isn’t for everyone. Maybe you don’t have the space at home, can’t focus outside of the office, or need to interact with coworkers face-to-face. 

Looking at it in a positive way, allowing remote work actually improves productivity. Think about eliminating the commute time, or reducing it from two hours per day to twenty minutes to get to a local Starbucks. Even if only allowed occasionally, the flexibility frees up an employee to, rather than leave work early to get to a kid’s soccer game, work remotely for a full day and still make the game on time.

photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Less time on the road could mean better productivity out of remote-site employees.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Nearly everyone has been on a conference call at work. Why? Because not everyone is in the same location. If business couldn’t be conducted over the phone, our economy would have ground to a halt decades ago. 

In my current role, on a long-term consulting engagement with a San Francisco-based software company, I’ve been in the same room as my co-workers only twice in the past 13 months. Some of them I’ve worked with for nearly nine months before ever meeting them in person just last week. And it hasn’t affected the work on either side.

We use email, obviously. We also use a web-based instant messaging app, which everyone is on nearly all day, every day, allowing for near-instant answers to any question. We use Salesforce Chatter as a place to post information that anyone can find. When we really need to discuss something, we have a voice call and share our laptop screens over GoToMeeting or a similar service. To store files and documents, we use Box, a cloud-based file management system that everyone has access to, regardless of location. We use Google’s suite of office apps, like Docs and Spreadsheets, which allow multiple people to edit simultaneously.

None of these apps requires me to be in the office. In fact, none of them even require me to have a company-provided laptop or phone. All I need is my login and password and I’m ready to work from any device.

Plenty of Reasons to Allow Remote Working

A Forbes survey listed the top 10 reasons people like remote working, and the top three are work/life balance, to save gas, and to avoid traffic. Another article points to flexible working benefiting the company, like continuity during storms, happier employees and a wider pool of potential workers. 

Especially in Hawaii, where electricity and real estate are both expensive and the talent pool is shrinking for many reasons, companies should be pioneering the work-from-home economy. Cutting down on costs (office space, utilities, desks) and increasing employee morale (flexibility, less stress, better job opportunities) should be a business decision.

“I haven’t found an organization in Hawaii that has any significant remote working opportunities,” said Doug Harb, a Honolulu-based recruiter and human resources expert, and owner of Makai Search Group. “It’s not just Hawaii, however, it’s a common thing anywhere outside of progressive industries, such as tech. For the most part it’s management’s fear that, if we give them too much freedom they will take advantage of it. In other words, are they watching television or working on that spreadsheet?”

In Harb’s experience, it’s a lack of exposure to and experience with the concept of remote working that stokes the fear. But, when it comes down to day-to-day performance, Harb recommends just looking around any office on any day. 

“These days, most people communicate via email at work,” Harb said. “Even talking is fading away, and email provides a trail and a record of the discussion, so it has become the primary mode of conversation. If you try to call, people seldom answer their phone. Why even be in the office?”

For Hawaii especially, remote working could help alleviate a few of our local challenges. We could take thousands of cars off the roads every day, eliminating their emissions and their need for fuel while easing traffic for others. Then the benefits just multiply as more people see the value in swapping commute time for family time and as companies cut costs.

“Giving workers flexibility in how and when they work is the future, and it’s how leading companies treat their employees today,” said Harb. “In some markets in the country, it’s almost expected that you offer remote work options. If a company in Silicon Valley said that an employee must work 8-to-4 and be at their desk every day, they’d have a tough time finding employees.”

With the State of Hawaii spending billions of dollars on rail and tens of millions on economic development, why not use some of those dollars to attack traffic and boost the economy at once by offering remote working incentives? It could attract more highly-skilled workers and create a more flexible workforce. As Hawaii-based companies became more experienced with the concept, it could further alleviate our brain-drain issue by making it easier to hire and benefit from employees who, for whatever reasons, live on the mainland.

About the Author

  • Jason Rushin
    Jason Rushin has nearly 20 years of experience in software marketing, consulting, and engineering, and currently works as a marketing consultant for high tech clients, both locally and in Silicon Valley. Prior to relocating to Hawaii in 2010, he led marketing at several Silicon Valley software startups. Once in Hawaii, he launched and subsequently sold his own startup, and has been an active supporter of Hawaii’s small-but-growing startup ecosystem. Jason holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.