We are in unprecedented times as we fight the Coronavirus pandemic. Many things are not as they were. Many people are working from home for the first time. Managers are having to work from home – possibly for the first time as well, and with a team that is mostly or completely work-at-home.
Everything will return to normal, but it will be a new normal. It is not clear what that means – only time will tell. But it is clear that the number of people working at home, and managing remote employees, will continue to grow.
This means it is critical for managers to do three things.
- Evaluate the situation to determine if a role/job can be done remotely and if the individual doing the job can be successful working at home.
- Make sure the right training, workspace, tools, and technology are in place for the employee to be successful.
- Provide training on how to operate with work-at-home team members.
Pros and Cons
Before I get into the details of work at home, it is important to understand the pros and cons.
There is so much value in working at home.
Saves Time and Money
One of the biggest reasons employees are excited about working from home is that it saves them time. Most of this time is in the elimination of their commute. The average commute time across all of the US is 26 minutes each way (US Census). That number is higher for those working in larger cities.
Employees can also save time driving to and from lunch, running home to meet a repair person, running errands, going to their kid’s school, and so on.
And we all know, time is money (and there are some real money savings as well, such as gas and eating out)!
The second biggest reason is flexibility. In most cases, employees have the opportunity to work when it is most convenient for them – as long as they are achieving what is expected of them and working when they are needed.
This is a huge life-balance benefit. If something is planned in the evening, employees can start their day earlier to make up for it. If they need to attend a school function, they can find evening hours or even weekend time to compensate.
Allows for Greater Focus and Autonomy
For many jobs, working at home can provide an environment where it is easier to make your own decisions as to how you spend your time. This is not to say that employees should disengage from their boss, or do the things that they want to do rather than what they are assigned. It instead means they can take more responsibility in managing their time, find a bit of autonomy, and in some ways be more of their own boss.
The icing on the cake is that the employee is likely to be more productive. There will be fewer interruptions. People will not stop by their office or cube. They will not be interrupted by hallway discussions. And they will often be able to avoid meetings where they are not needed.
There is a significant risk when employees work at home.
Disconnected from Team / Organization / Company
There really is something to the saying “out of sight, out of mind.” When an employee works at home, they can quickly become separated from their team, the organization that they are a part of, and the company as a whole.
They can feel like they don’t know what is going on, what is important and what is not, and/or how the company is doing. All of these begin to create separation and a lack of connection.
Lack of Community
Related to the above, employees who are working at home can feel disconnected from their peers and their manager. They start to see the rest of the team as a unit, and them as outsiders.
The result of this is reduced job satisfaction.
Frustration with Tools and Technology
To be effective working at home, employees need the right tools and technology (more on this below) to be productive. Many of the tools and technologies are the same as are used at the office. Others will be directly related to working remotely.
These tools and technologies do not always work perfectly. Because they are in a different environment, the company IT team will be limited in the help that they can provide. As a result, the employee will have to spend time working through issues that impact their ability to do their job.
Some examples of this are internet failures. The employee will need to work with their service provider to solve these. Problems connecting to the company intranet. The employee will have to work with IT to diagnose and address the problem. And issues getting video conferencing to work correctly. IT will again need to help, but the problems may be local, requiring the employee to solve the problem.
Working at home can reduce the opportunities that an employee has. They might not have the visibility to be promoted as quickly. They might not hear about a new opportunity. Opportunities may require a significant amount of time to be spent at the office, eliminating them from consideration.
These are just a few examples. There are numerous reasons why you may not get the same opportunities as others, creating frustration!
Work Too Many Hours
Employees react differently to working at home. Some see it as a way to work less. Others can’t find a way to draw a clear line between working and being at home – and therefore work too many hours.
Neither of these situations is good.
Loss of Productivity
On the pros list, there was “Improves Productivity.” Productivity also shows up here. If you do not have a good working space, are continually interrupted by things going on at home, do not have good tools and technology, or just struggle to stay focused when alone – you will see a loss in productivity.
Evaluate the Situation
Now that you have a high-level understanding of the pros and cons of working at home, the next step is to evaluate the situation to determine if the job/role can be done remotely and if the person will be successful.
What has recently happened as a result of the Coronavirus is unique. The decision to have people work from home was not based on the role/job and the person. It was to aid in preventing the spread of the virus. Once we are through this, we will be back to making decisions on work at home based on the following evaluation.
The first thing that you need to do is determine if the job or role is a good fit to be completed remotely. This decision is based on a number of criteria.
The jobs or roles that are the best fit for work at home allow for a significant amount of work to be done “on your own,” with little or infrequent interaction with others.
The biggest exception to this is jobs or roles where a significant portion of the job is on the phone or interaction with others regardless of where the person is (in an office or at home). Some examples: are telesales; customer support; and partner management.
As you think about the level of interaction required, make sure that you consider whether tools can help. For example, if the role includes reviewing a developer’s code, and the standard practice has been to sit in a conference room with other developers reviewing code and discussing changes, this same role can be done virtually, looking at the same files (shared in a code repository) and discussing the issues in a teleconference.
On the other hand, if the role is to spot-check parts that are being produced, it may be hard to do this remotely. This role requires physical proximity to the manufacturing team.
The other aspect of determining if the role is a good fit for work at home is measurement. The biggest concern managers have in allowing an employee to work at home is that they will be less productive, possibly because they will work fewer hours. Typically, and especially with high performers, exactly the opposite happens. But in order for everyone to feel comfortable, there needs to be a shared understanding of what is to be done, when it is to be done, and how the individual will be measured.
This all sounds simple. But it is my experience that most managers are not good at this. That is, they understand what gets done by connecting with their staff frequently – primarily in person. When they “see” their team working hard, they feel good about it. With work-at-home employees, the manager will no longer see them. Without this, there is a tendency to “feel” like the employee is not working hard. As a manager, the way to fight this is to arrange regular interactions and set up clear goals, milestones, and metrics.
The second component of the evaluation is to determine if the person will be successful in working at home.
Capability / Experience
As the manager, it is your responsibility to make sure that your team is set up to be successful. One way to do this is to make sure that you are assigning projects or tasks to the right person. Determining if work-at-home is a possibility should follow a similar thought process.
You should be looking at the skills and experience that the individual has to decide if they are a good candidate to work at home. One of the most important characteristics of a successful work-at-home employee is self-discipline. Others include the ability to focus, good time management, strong organization skills, and the ability to work on their own.
The other key factor, very related to capability and experience, is performance. It is my strong opinion, based on experience, that you do not offer your underperformers the option to work at home. Working at home is more challenging for many and therefore should not be offered universally. As a caveat – I am sure there are extenuating circumstances for some individuals.
For your solid and exceptional performers, and assuming the other factors have been met, it is something very worth considering.
One of the most important factors from employees that I have had who work from home is having the right environment. There is not only space for them to work, but there is a clear separation between working and not.
I recently interviewed Alex Bewley, Director of Engineering at VMware. He has worked at home for much of his career. When he first started, he worked at the dining room table. This was fine when the family was not home. But when they arrived home, especially when his kids were back from school, he had a very hard time focusing. This was not only because his kids were coming up to him to share their day, but also the ambient noise that existed.
Alex built out a separate space where he could “leave home” and go to work. Then when he was done, or ready for a break, he could “leave work” and return home. All of this was accomplished by walking through the door to his office.
The space that is used needs to have sufficient tools to do the job. These tools might include a computer with one or more monitors, a webcam, a good chair, a whiteboard, drinks, snacks, etc. You can read more about the tools below.
Training, Workspace, Tools, and Technology
You understand the pros and cons of work-at-home, you evaluated the job/role and the person, and you are comfortable that it is the right decision. Congratulations!
There are three key aspects to making work at home successful. The first is training. The second is ensuring that there is an appropriate workspace. And the third is providing the right tools and technology.
The single most important way to ensure success for work-at-home employees is to provide training for the individual and the team or organization that they work with.
Each employee who is working at home needs to be trained. This training should focus on a number of different topics.
- Working with your boss
- Staying connected with your team, peers, and organization
- Running effective distributed meetings
- Minimizing distractions
- Interacting with your family (and friends)
- Time Management
- Tools and Technology
It is great to have your work-at-home employee trained, but it is not enough. You need to train your team and organization as well. The list of topics is a subset of employee training.
- Staying connected with work-at-home employees
- Running effective distributed meetings
- Tools and Technology
As has already been discussed, having the right workspace is incredibly important. Here are a few key aspects of this space. It is important to identify space that addresses as many of these as possible.
- Separate from living space
- Ability to close the space off (door, divider, etc.)
- Ergonomically appropriate (height of the keyboard, mouse, monitor, good chair, etc.)
Tools and Technologies
I think of having an appropriate workspace as table stakes (the minimum required). I think of having good basic tools and technologies in the same way.
We are very dependent on the Internet for everything that we do. Access to the company intranet for IT applications, video conferencing, training (typically video), web search/research, and so on.
To be effective, the employee’s home internet connection must be of reasonable speed and reliable.
The move from being in the office, seeing people every day to working at home and not seeing anyone – is a challenge. Not only because we are “social animals,” but because the interaction is different when you can see the person or people you are meeting with.
Seeing others will help your team to build and maintain relationships. It also allows them to interpret physical queues (body language, facial expressions) that are not available with voice only.
And when voice is used rather than web conferencing, there is a tendency to multitask. What that usually means is rather than paying attention and participating, they are reading their email. This happens most often in meetings with individuals who are not in a room together. Multi-tasking like this does not work. Therefore the value of the meeting is dramatically decreased.
The good news in all of this is that web conferencing works and is broadly available!
Camera, Microphone, Headset
Given that ALL of your work-at-home employee’s direct interactions will now be on the phone or via web conferencing, it is important that they are of good quality.
To ensure this is the case, do not use your laptop camera, microphone, and speakers. Buy (or better yet have your company buy) a good webcam. Purchase a good headset with a built-in microphone, or if you would prefer, good headphones and a separate microphone.
Having good-quality equipment will improve the quality of your interactions and as a result, make you more effective.
In order to make this as straightforward as possible, here are the steps that you should take to be successful with work-at-home employees.
- Understand the pros and cons of work-at-home.
- Evaluate the situation
- Is the job/role appropriate to do remotely?
- Will the person be successful?
- Provide training for the work-at-home employee
- Provide training for the rest of the team
- Verify that there is an appropriate workspace
- Make sure that all of the required tools and technologies are available
If you take the time to complete each of these steps, the success rate for your work-at-home employees will be very high!
Here are four final comments.
- Work-at-home is not for everyone. If you can, be conservative in making it available.
- You as the manager MUST be a good role model in terms of the tools, technology, and etiquette. For example, require that everyone turn on their cameras when holding web conferences.
- Make sure that EVERYONE is trained.
- Schedule virtual social interactions in order to build relationships.