Here we go again. As COVID-19 finds new strength and businesses, schools and other organizations consider shutting down their physical facilities, talk of more “work from home” arrangements is floating in the air along with the ugly virus-packed droplets.
My first thought: When did telecommuting -- a perfectly good term for three decades -- become “work from home” or “WFH”. I suppose the buzzword gods and goddesses decided that if it sounds new it must be good.
Fact is, I’ve been telecommuting for most of the past 20 years, not just as an employee but as a manager. So, I’d like to share some thoughts on how to make it work, and what can make it fail.
Plan, for Real
Step one is to come up with a plan. Telling a few thousand employees on Friday that they need to bring notebooks home because they will be working from home on Monday isn’t a plan; it’s desperation. Whether Coronavirus once again forces you into a WFH scenario or not, have a plan because it doesn’t cost anything; and there’s a good chance that some other crisis – like weather, earthquake, power outage or fire – will spur the need for WFH. Write up the plan, share it with everyone, and be ready to adapt it as circumstances change.
Culture is Key
Understand how your company culture has to change to support WFH. If your management structure is based on counting heads in the office at 9 am and 5 pm, you are so 1960s. If people aren’t comfortable communicating by phone, email, or text, you have the wrong people. You might even have the wrong CEO.
Build a culture where people are evaluated based on getting their jobs done and meeting their deadlines with quality work, not whether you see them chatting at the water cooler.
What to Include
Your plan needs to include information about how remote workers can get information or help, preferably multiple ways. Having someone go into a secure portal won't work if their notebook is dead or the data center is offline. Similarly, managers want to be sure that they have multiple ways to reach their remote workers beyond company email during a crisis. Keep a backup directory that includes home phone, personal email, etc.
Also, use the planning process to define and communicate how remote workers can utilize not just core, daily production/communication applications but resources they may need only a few times a year. Think about things like benefits docs and year-end review apps. Don't forget to define responsibilities for remote device backups and updates.
There Will Be an Oops or Two
Recognize that some people can’t adapt to remote work. It may be about their home environment or or maybe a lack of self starting. If you can support them in an office environment that’s great. If not, they may be better off looking for other opportunities. When I joined a startup 20 years ago, we went on a massive hiring binge where we brought in people based on their talents, not where they lived. Most people worked from home anywhere from one to five days a week. Some discovered they just couldn’t do the WFH thing and chose to be in the office. In one case, an employee didn’t like working from home, but also couldn’t work in an open office environment. We had to have a mutually agreed separation.
Know What Counts
Rework your employee review metrics. Do this even if you don’t offer WFH, because you want to evaluate employees based on their production, not punching a clock. In that same startup we recruited a bunch of young mothers who couldn’t justify an hour or more of commuting every day but were talented, hard workers. They worked around their kids’ school and daycare schedules, often starting early in the morning, getting the kids off to school, and working until the kids came home. They were measured by the success of the content and websites that produced. They were told this right up front in the interview process, and they were warned that if they didn’t produce they had bigger problems than which office they were in or which hours they worked.
Delivering the Goods, and Smiles
The job site DICE recently surveyed home technology workers and found that more than half felt they were more productive at home. But surrounding the productivity question, people also felt that WFH made it easier to work, was more relaxed, and kept them away from office politics. As other side benefits, 80% of respondents said they save money on commuting, and 67% cited easier commute or comfortable attire.
Don’t overlook those benefits. If people are happier in their jobs while still being productive everyone wins.
No Kids Are THAT Cute
WFH isn’t a substitute for childcare or Saturday's laundry duty. A laughing, bubbly toddler barging into a Zoom call is cute once, but only once. Telecommuters need to focus during their work hours not putting away toys. Have employees send kids to daycare, school, or the grandparents.
Good Meeting Discipline
A bad in-person meeting is much worse if you’re on the conference call or video. Think about all the times you have spent in conference rooms while a speaker read the captions on their slides or parroted what was written in their 50-line spreadsheet. Do those presentations when attendees are remote and a whole bunch of people will turn to their Solitaire screens.
Don’t be anonymous. While some online meeting tools do highlight the name or photo of an active speaker, don’t you hate it when you don’t know who’s talking, or even what their role is? And, bad connections only complicate matters.
Communicate With People (Talk but Listen)
Try some casual networking events for remote and office workers. However, don’t get carried away with these. Attendance can fall off unless you keep these fresh. Simple outreach is more important than you may realize. Basic texts like “good morning” “have a good weekend” let your people know that you are thinking of them.
Beyond networking, managers need to understand what remote workers may be going through during times of world, national, or corporate crises. Gee, does the year 2020 qualify? Whether you bring your team together on a call to share their concerns, or your employees just reach out to peers to chat, recognize that remote workers can feel vulnerable sitting in the basement offices. Be a voice for remote workers, but be an ear as well.
So, Don't Be Alone
Get a dog, or a cat. This is for anyone who works remotely -- staffer or manager. With no water cooler or opportunity to chit chat with peers in the hallway during bathroom breaks you lose a valuable opportunity to vent about your stupid manager or that new college grad in marketing who just doesn't get it.
So, turn away from your computer and tell your pet just what you think. If you shower your pet with F-bombs and wave your arms in frustration, your dog will wag its tail and still love you. Your cat will simply ignore you. Hey, doesn’t that sound like some of your co-workers?
For more on work-from-home check out these InformationWeek articles.
Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than two decades. As editorial director of InformationWeek and Network Computing, he oversees the day-to-day planning and editing on the site. Most recently he was editor ... View Full Bio