So, you’re one of the last holdouts. All around you, companies and organizations have jumped on the telecommuting bandwagon. But in the department where you’re the boss, everyone is still showing up and chugging through the 8 to 5 routine, battling traffic, daycare issues, and your clock-watching nature.
Whether you realize it or not, chances are that at least some of your employees are looking to greener pastures. Even those who don’t wish to telecommute full-time wouldn’t mind the opportunity to work from home a day or two a week.
But you’ve got an organization to run and customers to serve. If they don’t like doing things the old school way like writing in an academic diary, they can head out to the highway, right? If work was fun, then it wouldn’t be called “work.” Trying to arrange work from home options for your staff is a headache that you just don’t need.
Before you decide that’s the way it has to be, think about the benefits of telecommuting from your company’s perspective. As a manager, it is understandably part of your job to ask ‘what’s in it for the company?” The answer is that in almost every organization, there is a significant amount of work that can be done off-site, and in fact is better performed without the distractions of a busy workplace.
The option to work from home as little as one day a week, or even every other week, can significantly improve quality of life for your employees. But beyond that, it can be just plain good for business. Here a few things that even the most old-school of workplace operators should think about before shutting the door on telecommuting options:
1. Yes, your employees will do others things when they’re working from home. But they’ll still work harder.
There’s no doubt about it. When an employee is working from home, she’s probably going to do a few loads of laundry in between returning calls, responding to emails and writing that proposal. She may take a break and chop up the salad for her family’s dinner. If she’s really living dangerously, she might even run to the store on her lunch break to pick up a few things her household needs, instead of wolfing down a limp sandwich at her desk like she usually has to do in the office.
On the surface, it sounds like you’ll be contending with a lot of wasted time. But think about it for a moment. If you’ve made your hiring decisions wisely, your employees are trustworthy and committed individuals. They’re also human, so of course they’re going to take advantage of the chance to multi-task. But any telecommuter worth her salt knows that the opportunity to work from home is a privilege, not a guaranteed right. She’s going to go above and beyond to give you your money’s worth and then some.
Sure, she might juggle a few household chores throughout the day. But that hour she usually spends getting ready to leave the house in the morning, and the 45 minutes she sits in traffic each way? You can be pretty sure she’s going to spend a good chunk of that time focusing on her work. Instead of ironing professional clothing and putting on her makeup, she’ll be reading the morning’s emails and reports. Instead of sitting in traffic cursing at a red light, she’ll be preparing her notes for that conference call.
2. Less Stress Equals More Productivity
Impending deadlines or important presentations lead to the kind of stress that fosters productivity. But traffic jams and long commutes lend themselves to the kind of stress that actually causes employees to lose focus.
If an employee feels like he’s fought a battle before he even gets to the office, he’s not going to tackle that report with the energy and enthusiasm you’d hope for.
While chances are that you can’t let your employees ditch the commute every day, allowing them to work at home on special projects or job tasks that require focus, concentration and creativity is beneficial to both you and them.
3. Are There Really More Distractions at Home?
It’s a common misconception that those working at home will be subject to more distractions than those in the workplace.
A dedicated employee will control the distractions in his home. He’ll keep the TV off and the web surfing time to a minimum. He’ll tell his mother that no, she can’t call three times a day.
In the office, the chatter of co-workers, the crowdedness of workspaces, and other activities going on around them are often beyond an employee’s control. It is easier to give in and join in the “American Idol” conversation going on across the cube farm than it is to try to work through it.
4. Sometimes, Hiding from the Customer is a Good Thing
As a general rule of thumb, customers aren’t a distraction. They’re the reason you and your employees are there. But when part of your deliverables are products like content, reports, web sites, presentations, or just about any other item that requires focused work, constant calls and visits from clients can cause staff to lose momentum.
Creating a workplace where employees divide their time between providing on-site coverage and support and working on their part of projects or deliverables from home can provide the best of both worlds. You can deliver the friendly customer service face and still give employees the focused, uninterrupted time they need to churn out their best work.
5. Not Much in the Budget for Raises This Year? Done Right, Telecommuting IS A Raise of Sorts.
You expect your employees to go above and beyond and produce consistently. In return, they expect to be fairly compensated for their services and to have strong performance recognized with pay increases and promotions.
Sometimes, the money isn’t there to do all you’d like. While providing the benefit of telecommuting should never be considered a reason not to give good salary increases, including the option to arrange some work-from-home time into their schedule does provide employees with a way to cut the cost of living.
Reduced gas expenses, less time for children in daycare, and the need to buy fewer high-end professional clothing items are benefits employees will appreciate, especially in years when your budget is lean and your pay increases are less than you and your staff had hoped for.
6. If you don’t let a good employee telecommute, someone else will.
Retention is an issue in the workplace. Your best employees are those who are in the most demand, and they know it.
If your company or departmental policy prohibits flexible work arrangements, an employee who wants one bad enough will find it elsewhere.
A friend of mine recently had a company try to woo him away from his current employer with a significantly higher salary offer. He enjoyed his current job, but hated his hour-long commute, and the money and shorter drive were too much to pass up. When he went to talk to his current boss, she went to her higher-ups and explained the situation. While their budget didn’t allow them to match his offer at the competing company, they were able to retain him by allowing him to telecommute 2 or 3 days a week, depending on the work schedule and priorities at the time.
7. Maximize use of your office space
Setting up combined telecommute/on-site schedules for your staff can decrease the crowd in your cube farm, giving employees less distractions and more space on any given day.
In fact, if you’re really strapped for space, you can use such hybrid schedules to let two staff members share the same workspace throughout the week. Many employees will be more than willing to give up a completely personal workspace in the office in exchange for more flexibility and freedom.
8. Some telecommuting arrangements actually increase customer service options
Office employees do much of their work in a virtual environment. So do customers.
Depending on the population your organization serves, your customers may actually prefer to transact business online or by phone. I work in a university environment, in an office that provides services ranging from advising to registration to records management. Our clients, the students, grew up wired. For them, the internet is a way of life. Having to come into the office to obtain a service seems old-fashioned and inconvenient. They’d often rather get questions answered by email or instant message, or participate in advising done by discussion board and chat rooms.
Employees with the right set-up can deliver phone and internet based services from home just as well as they can in the office. In exchange for the ability to do so, employees may be more willing to be flexible with work schedules.
A mother who needs to collect her children from school and get a meal on the table at night can’t stay in the office to host an evening online program or be available to respond to messages and emails from clients. But she may be perfectly willing to do so from home.
9. Telecommuting can improve interpersonal relationships and increase cooperation in the office.
So, your employees want to work from home, do they?
Instead of seeing making telecommuting arrangements as an additional management responsibility, consider challenging your staff to come to you with a proposal on how your office can make fair arrangements for everyone and still cover essential services in the office.
Let employees take ownership of providing themselves with flexibility. Encourage them to work together to come up with a coverage schedule that ensures everyone has a fair opportunity to work at home and provides enough staff members in the office on any given day to ensure that on-site work is accomplished. Let them work out the details of who does what, and when. Review the proposal, and gradually implement it over a trial period. At the end of the trial, reconvene your staff to work out the bugs, tweak arrangements as needed, and move forward.
If you employees want the opportunity, they’ll put aside personal differences and work together to set up an arrangement that benefits all. They’ll be flexible with each other and compromise when needed to keep the telecommuting option in place. It is amazing how well people will work together if they know they stand to lose something they value otherwise.
10. Telecommuting is a great opportunity to cross-train your staff
There’s a lot more to providing a fair telecommuting arrangement among multiple staff members than just working out a schedule. Chances are that if everyone has been in the office day-in-and-day out, each person is performing at least one task that only he or she knows how to do.
Sue is the one who knows all the computer passwords and where the keys are to all the various supply locations. Kevin is the only one who responds to inquiries of a certain nature, while questions about a different service always go to Jen.
But for the telecommuting option to be fair for everyone, Sue, Kevin and Jen can’t be expected to be there all the time. To make it work, others will have to be trained on what they do.
Some employees tend to hold key bits of information about how they do what they do close to their chests. They don’t mean to be guarded, but knowing they’re an “expert” on something that no one else knows makes their jobs feel more secure. That’s a hard habit to break. But people are more likely to break it if the reward for doing so is the option to participate in a telecommuting arrangement.
Likewise, some employees are hesitant to learn more about the job responsibilities of others. They’re already feeling overworked in their own roles, and fear that if they learn something new they’ll be regularly tasked with it too. Again, if the price to pay for the chance to work at home a day a week is to be cross-trained and able to provide support to other areas, employees are usually more willing to participate with a smile.
Increasing the knowledge base about roles and tasks in your office makes your entire operation more productive, and gives you the widespread expertise you need to cover your bases when employees resign, have medical issues, go on extended vacation or hit the lottery.
11. Productivity can be easier to measure in telecommuting scenarios.
When employees are working at home, they should be dealing with tangible and measurable tasks. You can gage whether the arrangement is working by the quantity and quality of their output.
Sure, you can do that in the office too. But an employee’s assertion that she’s having trouble completing her daily quota of content, research, reports or data entry because her office is closest to the lobby and she’s always being interrupted by walk-in clients may be very real. At least, it’s hard to disprove. If the employee is given the chance to work at home and completes her quotient and then some, then chances are her assertions were true. If not, then maybe she really is a slacker. At least you’ll know.
Telecommuting arrangements aren’t always the easiest things for management to implement. As both a manager and someone who values work/life balance, I frequently telecommute myself. I wouldn’t feel this was fair if I didn’t work to make it possible for my staff as well.
You will face employees who take unfair advantage of the arrangement. But in truth, that’s not so different from the slacker who surfs the web all day in his on-site office. In time, work performance speaks for itself, and you’ll deal with individual situations appropriately.
Overall, telecommuting can have many benefits for your organization. Happier and more productive employees, increased cooperation and team spirit, more measurable work outcomes, better use of office resources and improved customer service can all be end results of telecommuting arrangements if they are handled with fairness and flexibility on the part of both managers and employees.