February 1st is Work Naked Day. Don’t worry, this is an HR blog so it’s not actually as salacious as it sounds. Work Naked Day was created by author and home office expert, Lisa Kanare, to “allow” employees one day a year when they could officially work from the comfort of their home.
Of course, that got me thinking. Why do some employers embrace working from home, while others don’t? I’ve worked with hundreds of clients over my career, and there’s likely nothing more divisive than the working from home debate – should we or shouldn’t we have an official “working from home policy”? Some companies deliberately choose not to have an official policy. Rather, their managers make the call as and when situations arise. If an employee abuses the perk, it gets taken away. Other employers prefer to have a policy in place so that everyone can be treated equitably.
The truth is, the world of work is changing. This isn’t some catch phrase. Anyone who’s been working for more than 20 years has seen the shift. When I started my first job back in 1999, the only people who could even think about “working from home” were the IT folks. And that too only when it was a middle-of-the-night emergency. Regular office folk needed to come into work to access their files, connect to the company email, and get work done. Meetings were part of your daily grind, and conference calls were only used with people who weren’t in the city.
Fast forward to 2018, and now you can access your work email on your personal phone, over the internet anywhere, and the expectation is that you are “on” and “available” all the time, night or day. While some employers are now promoting a “no emails beyond business hours”, the reality is that many of us work with companies and colleagues outside of our time zone, and that’s just not possible. When I was supporting the BC office of my company, it was completely normal to receive emails at 9pm, and while they probably didn’t expect a response from me, I replied anyway because I was in a customer-focused role (yes, HR is considered customer-focused!).
I’m hearing of more and more companies that are promoting time away from the office as a chance to recharge. Other companies are making workplaces resemble home. The lines between home and work are definitely blurring. It’s not uncommon these days for companies to allow their employees to take a couple of hours off during the day to run errands, attend doctor’s appointments during the 9-5 day, because they know that those same employees will be logged on later that night, from home, answering emails and attending to work matters. It’s also not uncommon for managers who work late to schedule their emails to go out the next morning instead of at midnight.
These days almost every job can be performed remotely by quickly accessing remote files on cloud storage or on phones and laptops. There are some exceptions, like the manufacturing industry where presence on the production line is crucial to the operation. My view is that if the work can be done, and done well, whether the employee is at the office in person or at home, then let there be flexibility. If you’re in a sales job that requires you to be on the phone 90% of the time, then it probably shouldn’t make a difference whether you’re at home or in the office. Conversely, if you’re spending 90% of your day on the road, it doesn’t make any difference whether you make an appearance in the office or not.
There are many business owners who say that they like having their employees around them, that it’s part of their culture. They don’t believe that communicating over instant messenger, or email, or skype, or other virtual method is the same as face-to-face interaction. And, to be frank, I have never been a fan of working from home myself. I am much more productive and fulfilled when I’m surrounded by people. I feel energized when I’m in the office. Most people I know say the complete opposite. They are more productive when they work from home, particularly those in the creative field, or a job that requires deep concentration. In the HR profession, where the effectiveness of your job is directly correlated to knowing what’s going on in the company, and the ability to read people’s body language and facial micro expressions, working remotely is difficult to justify. Yes, there are plenty of very successful HR people who work remotely and are very good at what they do, but it’s you’re fighting an uphill battle.
There is no right or wrong answer. My view, if you’re asking me, is to look at whether your business allows people to work effectively from home. Does working from home help your business, or does it still growth, innovation and degrade your culture. Here are some things to consider when designing a work from home policy:
1. Can the work be performed out of the office?
Manufacturing jobs would be hard pressed to be performed outside of the plant
2. Can the work be performed well out of the office?
If most of your work is done in a group setting by brainstorming, it would be difficult to replicate that when people are at home. On the other hand, you can enforce presence onsite for the brainstorming, then let people go off and work from wherever.
3. Does your technology support it?
If not, and you’re keen on starting a work from home policy, make sure you invest in the right technology first. There’s nothing more frustrating than to have connectivity issues when you’re ready to work at home, and no IT support to fix the issue.
4. Do your customers support it?
If you own a retail store, it’s unlikely that your customers are going to be ok with shopping with no one to help them. You could set up an online store (if you haven’t already), but you must first make sure your customers are onboard.
5. Does it save you space?
A big factor is to consider whether you can downsize your office space if you have half your workforce working remotely. Instead of having an office space for 40 people, could you move to a space for only 20 people? That could save you a ton of money.
6. Do your employees support it?
If you have a mature workforce, the risk of working remotely is relatively low. New grads and junior employees will benefit from the support of more experienced colleagues around them and leaving them to work alone will actually hurt your business.
Bottom line, once you’ve answered the 6 questions above, you can make the decision. I’ll write another blog post soon on what you should include in a policy, and what sort of training your managers will need to make the initiative a success.