Punctuality as a remote work skill

I was listening to a recent episode of the Distributed podcast, which featured an interview with the CEO of TopTal. In the episode, at around the 15 minute mark, he made an interesting point about punctuality.

Specifically, he said that their hiring process gave punctuality – being on time – a high weight. Being late could easily disqualify you from working at Toptal. I think this is the right decision for Toptal, but probably the wrong decision for many distributed (“remote”) organizations.

Toptal is a freelancer marketplace/recruiter; they select qualified freelancers, then provide them to businesses who need a freelancer. Their screening process includes punctuality as a criteria because they look bad if their freelancers don’t show up on time. It’s the same issue that Manpower or a temp agency would have if you didn’t show up on time to one of their job sites.

However, for most distributed work, you’re applying to work at the same company where you will do your work. In that case punctuality is important, as it would be in any job interview, but it’s probably somewhat less important than Toptal makes it. If you were a few minutes late due to technical issues, that would be understandable.

For most distributed jobs, punctuality is less important than clear communication about your current status. If you’re going to be a few minutes late, tell the person you’ll be meeting with that you’ll be a few minutes late.

Unlike an office-based meeting, the person isn’t sitting in the conference room waiting for you, wasting their time. They’re at their desk, being as productive as normal. (Of course, there are arguments for long blocks of uninterrupted time for creative work, but that’s a different discussion.)

The key takeaway here is that you should measure what’s important for the person actually doing their job. For Toptal, being on time when working with a client is important. For most distributed jobs, it’s not as important as communication.