It seems like everyone's working remotely these days, and those who aren't wish they were. So what do you do when your team starts asking about working from home? Should you give them a leave pass from turning up at the office, or take a stand and set up a policy against working from home?
There's plenty of evidence that companies that embrace working from home make their employees happier and more productive. But there are also companies like Yahoo, IBM and Hewlett-Packard that have decided to put a stop to working from home, citing reasons of improved communication and collaboration.
As a manager, how should you think about remote work? What are your options and the factors to consider? After working with a variety of teams – office-based, remote and combinations – I've got some insights that might help.
First, recognize that remote work is a great way to keep staff happy.
Offering the option to work remotely can be a fantastic opportunity to reward your team members and provide a perk that improves staff satisfaction. It might help retain staff that view the ability to work remotely as a huge benefit, as most employees know that it might not be available at another company. The commute, staff politics and interruptions of the office can be a source of stress and frustration, not to mention the time wasted. Top talent often cites flexibility, especially working-from-home arrangements, as reasons they would not leave a job.
But ... team productivity systems need to be in place.
Managers often worry that if they let their team work remotely, they won't know whether everyone is being productive. The thing is that remote work highlights productivity problems – it doesn't cause them.
If you can't tell whether people working remotely are being productive, it really tells you that you can't track productivity. After all, seeing someone sitting at their desk might give us some psychological comfort, but it is not a measure of productivity.
So, before going head-on into remote work, figure out how to solve the productivity-tracking problem. For lots of businesses, this can be as simple as setting up a place or using a tool where everyone shares their plan for the day, and later updates it with the things they've completed in the day. In the office this might be a whiteboard, but once people start working from home, it needs to be online.
This simple system goes a long way to create a sense of accountability and shows that everyone is pulling together to complete a different piece of the jigsaw puzzle. It also forces team members to be deliberate about how they spend their time and highlights opportunities for collaboration.
Of course, there are a few other requirements for managing a high-performance team, but aside from making team members' daily actions transparent online, the same principles apply whether the team works in a local office or remotely.
Consider remote working options.
Rather than think of remote work as an all-or-nothing proposition, there are several ways you can take a middle ground.
For starters, you can suggest running a trial for a few weeks or months so that you can make a proper assessment. If you're comfortable with the results, you can easily extend this arrangement.
You can also start with a policy that lets employees work from home one or two days a week. To maintain good communication and collaboration, you might want to stipulate that all staff need to be in the office on certain days for meetings and team building.
Set up a remote working policy.
Before just letting your team start working remotely, you should put together some guidelines that outline your expectations for working from home.
A remote working policy should evolve over time, but it could start with things like the core hours you expect employees to be available and online, minimum hours per day you expecting them to work, communication required if an individual's working plan for the day changes, expectations for response times to communications, and the need to have a quiet working space and the ability to focus on their work. This can usually be part of a broader team agreement, which should be a document that the whole team regularly accesses and references.
Implement the structure that working from home requires.
When people aren't physically working together in the office, there often needs to be more structure to the week than might have been in place previously. You might want to instigate a weekly meeting where you all dial in, a daily check-in, or an end-of-week meeting where you report on what you've achieved for the week.
Having the right tools – generally, online software – is also a key ingredient. In general, you'll probably need online file storage, a chat system, a group call or video system, a team productivity system, and possibly a project management system. Finding the right combination of these can take some trial and error, but it's well worth the effort.
Use remote working opportunities to attract better talent.
Once you've got remote working in place, you can use this to your advantage in recruiting by making roles open to remote workers. This broadens your talent pool and may help you attract someone of a high caliber. Of course, you can specify that your employee must be located in a certain region, have a certain standard of language skills, and work in a certain time zone.
For businesses located in small towns or areas where there is a lot of competition for top talent, offering a remote position can give you a huge advantage.
So what's the answer? Should you let your team work remotely?
Allowing your team to work remotely can feel like a huge risk, but most businesses find that if they work closely with team members, productivity actually improves. Most likely, the optimal solution is some combination of working from home (for fewer distractions and increased productivity) with work in the office (for better communication and collaboration). The right balance will depend on your team members and preferred working styles.
Ultimately, a lot of benefits are associated with remote work, and these can become a competitive advantage for your business if you implement remote work thoughtfully.