How to Protect Corporate Culture in a Telecommuting World
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It may seem like good policy to let someone work from home, but, from a corporate-culture perspective, there’s something to be said for making employees schlep to the office.
Thanks to video conferencing and the ability to ‘remote in’ to one’s office computer, there has been a rise in work-from-home policies across industries. Many argue there is no need for many employees to work from a physical office location. Especially for employees who spend the majority of their days working solo, working from wherever they choose shouldn’t matter as long as they produce quality results.
But what's the impact on all-important company culture? It's not a simple answer, and corporate attitudes seem to change daily. As many companies continue to replace full-time staffers with freelancers and remote employees, others like Hewlett-Packard are reversing their work-from-home policies, saying such practices are greatly affecting culture and the ability to work through challenges through a team effort.
So if you are a business leader trying to decide how working from home might affect your corporate culture, ask yourself the following questions:
1. What kind of culture do you want to create?
Most leaders know that cohesion and a focus on culture is vital to creating and sustaining a winning business. Teams operate best when they know each other, even personal details like how someone wants his coffee or what makes someone roll her eyes. If you think that teamwork and in-person collaboration is important to your culture, work-from-home policies aren't right for you. At the same time, companies can build by having everyone telecommute. That can be part of the culture, rather than take away from it.
2. What are the needs of your organization?
Companies that have a good deal of direct, on-site interactions with customers need all hands in the home office. Those with sales forces that travel the globe constantly don't. In a sector like technology, where engineering or programming help may be hard to find, it might be better to have a more permissive policy about working from home to use to attract talent. Every company is different, and it's up to the top executives to ask themselves specifically whether the needs of the enterprise allow for many employees working remotely.
3. How do you plan to make sure a work-from-home policy does not compromise communication?
Here I have a personal perspective. After three years as a full-time employee at an organization, I spent a year working as a freelancer for that same enterprise from my home office. I can tell you that had I not worked in the office for the first three years of my tenure there, I’m pretty confident that I would have missed out on experiencing the firm’s culture. I found that I had to go to the office a couple of times a week, even just for a couple of hours, to keep myself in the loop. It was very easy for communication to breakdown between the other employees and me because contacting me required picking up the phone or composing an email or instant message, rather than just shouting across the room. (I worked in a Wall Street trading-desk environment.)
4. How often is it really necessary for employees to collaborate?
Sometimes, we like to think of our organizations as a place that thrives on collaboration, only to find out that it is individuals working independently that make us successful. If there are legitimate business reasons that make you want to employ a work-from-home strategy, take a good look at whether face-to-face collaboration is as necessary to your culture as you think. Technology is a real plus here. You can be collegial and collaborative using technology as simple as Skype and GoToMeeting.
5. How will a work-from-home policy affect productivity?
When Marissa Mayer axed work-at-home for many Yahoo employees earlier this year, she cited a good reason: Data showed few workers were actually logging in. To her mind, having people show up for work each day ensured better productivity. A hyper-charged, high-energy office environment is vital to many companies' culture. That requires productivity, and may require more employees to clock in each day. On the flip side, you might actually improve productivity by moving people out of the office. The corrosive gossiping and cliques that office environments breed come from colleagues spending the majority of their waking hours cooped up with one another.
6. How will you measure their work-from-home productivity?
Everyone has to pull her own weight. Often, permissive telecommuting policies can engender bad feelings among employees. That can destroy culture and morale. One way to fix that is to have clear, quantitative metrics to measure performance. Making sure everyone is evaluated evenly let's the employees know that it doesn't matter where they are working, it matters how they are completing their tasks.
Once you begin to ask yourself these kinds of questions and weigh the pros and cons of a work-from-home policy, it should instinctively become clear which path is right for your firm's culture.