Is Everybody Home? Here's How to Devirtualize Your Team.
As popular as telecommuting has become, its actual benefit to productivity is still in dispute. Advocates for the practice cite a 2014 survey where 77 percent of respondents reported greater productivity while working offsite, while 30 percent accomplished more in less time. However, all of the respondents were telecommuters, which is sort of like reporting that ice cream is the perfect breakfast food based on a survey of 6-year-olds.
The truth is, telecommuting comes with its own set of organizational challenges. Foremost is maintaining company culture. In general, employees who work in offices tend to bond with their coworkers while absorbing company culture and values. By comparison, I've seen firsthand the limitations of work-from-home. When I was working for a Fortune 100 company earlier in my career, we acquired a large group of employees, the majority of whom worked from home offices. Their arrangement had been put in place for cost-saving reasons. Not too long after they joined our company, it became clear that acclimation to our culture and business norms would be hard. With so few face-to-face connections being made, it was easier to remain in "previous-company mode."
The upsides of telecommuting for employees are obvious (no sitting in traffic or worrying about your wardrobe) but it does have one major disadvantage: Working from home deprives both workers and employers of experiences that only happen when teams work closely together. It's the victory of convenience over culture, but the pendulum may be swinging in the other direction. IBM, a pioneer of work-from-home, is recalling thousands of remote workers to physical office spaces. The company found that the age of real-time data and lightning-fast communications calls for response times that only in-person collaboration stimulates.
Nobody is arguing that all telecommuting must stop, but remote employment isn't right for every employee or job, and groups with isolated members rarely get the chance to become a cohesive team. Telecommuting is an option to keep for the right situation, but employers should understand its benefits, drawbacks and proper applications.
Working from home is best suited to jobs that require little collaboration. Sales and customer service professionals may be more productive outside of an office. This assumes that employees' homes are set up for work and that they have the right disposition (and the self-discipline) to focus outside of an office environment.
Not so interconnected?
This isn't just my opinion. The decision to eliminate working from home at Yahoo was made by then-CEO Marisa Mayer and was based on empty parking lots and troubling VPN log reports. Mayer caught flak for challenging a treasured perk, but the evidence suggests that she may have been right. According to audio-conferencing leader Intercall, more than 60 percent of people admitted to doing other work or sending emails during those conference calls and Skype chats that promised to "bring the boardroom to the living room." If multitasking during important meetings is the rule and not the exception, what does that say about employee investment?
In my 30-plus years in HR I've learned that people who don't work together rarely become a top-performing team. Real team-building comes not only with face-to-face engagement but also from going out to lunch, griping about a manager or trading war stories -- none of which actually happen over a WebEx meeting.
Similarly, people who don't know each other as human beings don't work together as effectively -- their individual productivity might be acceptable, but they won't sync up as well with teammates. Traditional channels of productive disagreement are almost impossible to replicate online, which leads to isolation and resentment. Email arguments, for example, escalate faster and get more virulent than in-person conversations. Read any online forum and you'll know what I mean.
I also know from experience that working from home can sometimes create "adjunct employees" with fewer chances to learn from coworkers or get noticed for promotions or new assignments. These talented, promising professionals find their overall trajectory limited because their isolation meant exclusion from company culture and opportunity. These employees were mainly known only for their output, not their talent or ideas, and they become interchangeable
At my current company, we make it a point to provide remote employees (especially those who have joined through acquisition) opportunities to visit our HQ or regional offices and also participate in company-wide events such as R&D hackathons. These personal touch points go a long way to bringing everyone together.
The best of both worlds
This is not to say telecommuting has no place in modern business. Best practices will leverage telecommuting to attract applicants who may not live near your office. In addition, it creates an option for trusted, highly valued employees who seek to limit their commuting time. The trust factor between manager and employee in a successful work-from-home arrangement cannot be emphasized enough.
I find that full-time telecommuting is often not as successful as simply having a flexible schedule. Someone who comes in two days a week and telecommutes the other three gets the best of both worlds: exposure to office culture and opportunities and the comfort of the home office. Even individuals who work remotely full time should still come in as often as possible. Enforcing this practice among my own companies has made remote or semi-remote employees more engaged with the business, its products, their coworkers and their path within the organization.
A plan for working from home
Good managers guide every employee along a path to success. The first step for telecommuting is to determine if it's the right fit for a particular employee. Consider variables like job function and availability before agreeing. A position that requires very little collaboration lends itself to remote work, as does an employee with key skills who simply cannot commute five days a week.
Once a request is approved, managers need to put in extra time to ensure successful onboarding. An employee who telecommutes should have as much structure as one who comes into the office, so supervisors should lay out their expectations with an agreed-upon and clear work management plan. Both parties should agree to certain performance standards and regular check-ins so that the employee does not simply become an invisible source of work. For example, what are the work-from-home employee's core hours? Agree on these and hold the employee accountable. Another is to be clear on the ground rules for collaboration aps (Jabber, Slack, etc.). My expectation is we will use the technology with honesty and transparency. If you're away or busy, your status should read yellow or red. If you're available it shows green. Simple, but effective.
Joining the team, wherever you are
One of the promises of the digital age was that people could work from anywhere -- and unlike flying cars, it's actually happening. Remote working among non-self-employed individuals has doubled since 2005, and as many as 53 percent of workers could be remote within five years.
But, as overwhelming as the trend toward telecommuting may seem, remember that remote employment is a strategic lever to help companies improve productivity and work-life integration while widening their hiring pool. Many such individuals have expressed their appreciation for their sudden upward trajectory within the company after I insisted they spend more time at the office. Teammates must work together, not just online but in person, and a smart leader helps their employees remain invested in and connected to the team's overall success, no matter where that employee works.