Work From Home Employees: A Manager’s Dilemma
Should I Let Employees Work From Home?
Compared to just 15 years ago, the widespread availability of Wi-Fi, tablets, video conferences and smart phones have made the world our office. Many jobs no longer require employees to be housed within the same four walls since they can connect virtually, just as if they were sitting at a desk in a high-rise office building. While some corporations retain what is becoming an old-fashioned “butts-in-seats” culture, other companies are almost exclusively virtual with more work from home employees than in-office staff. Which is better? Does it matter?
Face time between a manager and his or her employee is important, just as employee satisfaction is important. What we are left with is a dilemma for managers responsible for running teams in this changing environment. So, let’s have a look at some of the trade-offs.
The Benefits of Allowing Employees to Work From Home
It should not be a surprised that when employees work from home, they are less distracted and can better concentrate on their tasks at hand. The result of this, of course, is an increase in productivity. Particularly when an employee needs to crank out some critical work, allowing them to work from home for a day or a week can be way of affording them the time and concentration they cannot get by being in the office.
When employees work from home it offers them the benefit of flexibility – something that today’s workforce greatly values. A work from home arrangement allows a given employee to start when they want (or need), take breaks when they wish, and work on a schedule that helps them maximize the balance between work and life. Maybe they want to start early to finish up before the kids get home from school, or maybe they like getting in a long work out at lunch time when the mountain biking trail is quiet. Being able to work from home when a child is sick instead of taking a vacation day is a big bonus for parents. Regardless of the reason, when employees work from home, it gives them the chance to set the schedule that best works for them both personally and professionally.
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No commute? Working in your pajamas? A little background music of your choosing? Sounds great. Allowing employees to work remotely and be off-site can really boost morale because of the convenience and comfort telecommuting offers. Even if it’s an occasional thing so that the employee can step out for a medical appointment near their home in the middle of the day, allowing employees to work from home is a great way to keep employees happy.
4. Reduced Cost
Real estate can be a major expense for a company. Imagine the cost of leasing just a 10 story high-rise in a major metropolitan city. Now imagine the cost of leasing only 3 floors, because you have a predominantly remote work force and employees who work from home. Having employees work from home presents a financial advantage to a firm as the required footprint of an office and the associated costs of electricity, water and maintenance are reduced. To reduce their footprint even more, some firms have even moved to sharable offices that can be booked in advance should an employee need to come in for a given day or week.
5. Work Life Balance
Particularly for employees who may travel often, the option to work from home is a great way to promote balance between their home lives and work lives. If they’ve been on the road all week, allowing them to work from home on Friday ensures they will get more time with their family before heading out again on Monday. Consider it a carrot for sacrificing family time for the betterment of the firm. Additionally, if they were in the office late to get a report out, allowing them work from home the next day can help give them some rest and serve as a reward for the effort.
The Challenges of Allowing Employees to Work From Home
Why is productivity a concern when we just said it was a benefit? Make no mistake about it, not everyone can really work from home. Some people need to be around others to remain focused on their duties. Some employees will simply be too distracted by the TV, or by having a game on in the background. Some can’t help but take 5 minutes to do the dishes, only to spend another 15 folding laundry, only to spend another 60 working in the garden…then spending a little too much time on Facebook. By the time the day ends, they really haven’t gotten much done. If you’re letting your folks work from home, make sure you’re comfortable with their level of output.
It might sound funny, but when employees work from home, you can also find yourself dealing with the opposite of poor productivity. It’s not unrealistic to see a work from home employee’s hours extend beyond reason. At first, we as managers might think ‘that’s great, I get more work out of them!’ But in truth, when employees find it hard to shut down at the end of the day, they can find themselves working longer hours, which in turn leads to burn out. When managing remote employees, keep in mind they do not get the commute time to shut down and switch off their minds. So it’s important to keep a close eye on their hours to make sure they are indeed shutting down, stepping away and separating from the work. Early morning and late night emails are a sign that an employee might be struggling with separation. In order to continue performing at a high level, employees need sufficient space to recharge the batteries.
3. Employee Development
Not to sound old school or to discredit the value of FaceTime, Skype, video conferencing or webmeetings, but there is value in having your employees in the office. Every day, an employee inevitably comes into my office to talk about something: a conflict they’re having, a question on priorities, a challenge they’re dealing with, or a personal matter they need to talk about. Those are excellent times to have a solid heart-to-heart and a coaching session. Does it mean you can’t have that discussion via email, or Skype? No. But when you’re not in the same room, it makes it that much harder to get the real deal. Plus, don’t forget about the little hallway discussions between an employee and a more experienced peer, manager, or Vice President. A lot of learning can be gained in those small doses.
4. Out of Sight, Out of Mind
A former employee of mine recently asked me if I thought his career would suffer if he were not in an office with other the employees. His local office had recently closed, and while others relocated to another office of their choosing, he remained a remote employee. I replied by telling him that even if he were extremely productive at home, that he did run the risk of being out of sight, out of mind. In other words, when a manager has a predominantly in-office staff, with a few outliers who work from home, there can be a tendency to “forget” about the virtual employee. When it comes to work sharing, recognition, career opportunities or learning experiences, employees who work from home can easily be overlooked. Sounds harsh, but it happens more often than we might like to admit.
5. Perception of Others
Not a week goes by when I don’t get casual ‘feedback’ from another manager in my office.
Manager: “Hey, just an observation, it’s 11 AM and Rob just showed up. I’ve been looking for him every day this week and noticed that he’s coming in quite late. It is leading to problems.”
Me: “Well he has meetings with the customers in Asia very early in the morning so I told him I don’t expect him to come in at 5AM just to sit on the phone for 5 hours.”
Manager: “Oh, well that makes sense. But others might not see him strolling in at 11 as acceptable.”
When employees work from home, you’ll sometimes find yourself managing and calibrating the expectations of others. It’s not always a big deal, but can be problematic if it comes across as leniency and preferential treatment, or if the employee does in fact abuse the flexibility.
Virtual meetings and conference calls can only go so far. Working in separate areas can disrupt progress from time to time when communication becomes cumbersome. An employee of mine who worked from his home 500 miles away spent about 3 weeks trying to get his laptop fixed. He lost a lot of time handing IT problems over a shaky internet connection and fell behind on a lot of his work as result. Moreover, all of us can recall a time or two when we thought to ourselves “this would be so much easier if we were all in the same room.” So while there are many benefits to allowing employees to work from home, there is also value in togetherness.
Virtual May Be Cool, But There is Value in Togetherness
We’ve looked at both some positives and negatives of having employees work from home. So what’s the answer? Should we let employees work from home?
Sorry to disappoint, but there is no right answer. It comes down to the work your team does, and the level of confidence you have that the virtual barrier can be overcome on an employee to employee basis.
For my employees who work from home 100% of the time, I have weekly check-ins scheduled to make sure they are on task. For my employees who travel often, I encourage them to work from home on the Friday they’re back in town in order to maximize time with family. And for those who are in the office every day, I am not afraid tell them to take a couple of days and work from home to finish up a key deliverable in a quiet place if I am comfortable they can do it.
It ultimately comes down to the trust you have in your employees to get their work done, and how comfortable you are not seeing them in the office every day. It’s important to remain vigilant over productivity and to make sure the option of telecommuting is not being abused. And should you have a predominantly remote work force, bring it in for a huddle once or twice a quarter and get the team together face to face.
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