Hema, I really dread my team members calling up to say, ‘Sir, can I work from home today?’ I know the reasons are probably valid and the employee may actually achieve phenomenal productivity that day but I feel most comfortable when my team is in their official confines working on their deliverables…”
Ever felt the same way? Maybe not always, but every once in a while managers do feel this way. And then again, with all the disruptions in the recent past, the monsoon mayhem, bandhs (protests) both pan-India and local, maybe more than once!
But the work-from-home phenomenon is here to stay. More than a decade ago, I heard one of the seniormost executives of Sun Microsystems call himself the head of people and places. The objective of his role, as the headcount in the firm increased, was to reduce the real estate they occupied. And what better way than the magical “work-from- home” pill.
It was rarer then, at least in the subcontinent. But today, for every organization that believes in employees needing to be together physically for better communication and collaboration (think Yahoo!’s famous internal communication to employees in February 2013), there are many large organizations which are offering jobs designed exclusively as work-from-home.
So then how do we make “work-from- home” a truly seamless experience? All the protagonists concerned—the individual, the manager and, of course, the organization—have important roles in making this happen.
Start with the individual
At the heart of working from home lies the authenticity of the person availing of the benefit. The intent is critical, and if not genuine, can compromise the entire initiative, much as when women play the gender card and derail a truly good diversity initiative. Combined with intent is discipline. There are usually more distractions at home. Set yourself a schedule and have some ground rules. A physical space, away from mundane domestic disturbances, like pressure-cooker whistles and doorbells, is critical. Children should be told firmly that there is a price to having their parent at home—silence around the workspace. Tell people at home that you are not on call except in an emergency.
Set expectations on deliverables with colleagues, supervisors and stakeholders. Highlight blackout times when one is not available for any discussions or support. It’s important to be proactive in this rather than be caught doing something else or being away from when someone is trying to reach you urgently. Credibility is a big part of the acceptance of work from home.
Finally, deliver. Don’t be tardy with that. Effort metrics don’t matter in a work-from-home situation. It is the timely output that matters.
The manager is a key player
Managers need to communicate with the remote worker, especially when the arrangement is long term. There is loneliness in remote working and regular reach-outs will help address this. Go the extra mile to ensure remote workers are part of get-togethers, town halls and other office hangouts. Be available for them. Frankness is paramount; immediately call out any discrepancies between output and intent.
Learn to reward for result, not effort. It is natural to think the employee who is at hand to handle an unplanned work emergency is a hero compared to someone working diligently but remotely on their deliverables. This proximity bias can cloud judgement when assessing remote workers. Be aware of it and address it. Don’t play favourites when allotting work-from-home options to your team. Look at roles that can be best adapted for working from home, the need of individuals, and whether the individual concerned is a self-starter.
Embrace the model and trust your team to deliver. Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University in the US, talks about his experiment with Chinese travel website Ctrip’s call centre, where employees were given the opportunity of volunteering to work from home for nine months. In a Harvard Business Review article, Prof. Bloom says, “The savings would outweigh the productivity hit it would take when employees left the discipline of the office environment.” While the company was thinking it could save money on space and furniture, and these would compensate for the productivity loss when employees left the discipline of the office environment, actually “people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than staff in the office; Ctrip got almost an extra workday a week out of them and...at-home workers reported much higher job satisfaction”.
The glue that binds—the organization
The most important thing for organizations is to get the culture right, a culture that accepts work from home and allows it to thrive. Technology is a big must—cloud technology VoIP and telecommuting software are now easily available and affordable. Companies may also reimburse a fixed amount of expenses for connectivity and physical workspace spruce-up which allows employees access to their work applications in a safe and secure manner.
Don’t let policies be roadblocks. One company I know of allowed work from home, but had a blanket ban on promotions for those that availed of this facility. Similarly, if eligibility is gender-specific, that could have repercussions too. Make them available to both men and women. Companies must have a detailed FAQ as ready reckoner to clarify and guide employees and managers on dos and dont’s as well as have mechanisms to celebrate high-performing “Work from Homers”. Also, get leaders to champion the initiative and, if possible, walk the talk.
Finally, it all boils down to measuring productivity. What Lee Iacocca famously said on productivity applies to the tee for work-from- homers too! “Start with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees, motivate them and reward them. If you do all those things effectively, you can’t miss.”
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations. She was formerly the global head of HR for Infosys Ltd.