Is letting your employees work from home a good idea? That depends. Some companies – and people - are more suited to the arrangement than others.
Research has shown that remote working could make employees feel less engaged, isolated and disconnected from their coworkers, and that could lead to more mistakes, miscommunication, and a lack of productivity. Other studies, such as one recently conducted at the Wharton School, have found that for some employees, the loneliness of working from home could have a significantly negative impact on their performance.
Researcher Dan Schawbel, an employment expert and consultant, even found that work-from-home arrangements could decrease the long-term likelihood that an employee will stay with a company.
“When you don’t see or hear your colleagues over a long period of time, you can become less committed to your team and organization — and start looking for your next opportunity — since no one is looking over your shoulder while you job search,” Schawbel wrote recently in the Harvard Business Review.
But none of these downsides is stopping today’s workers from wanting more flexibility and independence from their employers.
For example, 47 percent of job seekers said in interviews with job search site Indeed.com last year that having a work-from-home policy is an “important factor” in choosing a job. A majority of respondents in the same study who work for companies without a remote-work policy admitted that they often feel “frustrated.” That’s the reason why almost 40 percent of companies worldwide now offer some form of remote and in-office options, according to a 2018 study from the International Workplace Group, a provider of remote work spaces worldwide.
“We know from psychological and organizational behavior research that autonomy is basically one of the most important drivers of intrinsic motivation,” Naomi Rothman, associate professor of management at Lehigh University, said. “When people have control over how they go about doing their work and when they do their work and where they do their work, it creates a lot of sense of responsibility over your work. That is very motivating for people.”
But unemployment is at a 50-year low and it’s a very competitive environment to find good employees. So many businesses, particularly small businesses, are considering a work-from-home policy just to be competitive with their larger counterparts. So how to best do this?
Depends on the job
For starters, offer this benefit only when it makes sense. It would be great if you could allow every employee who wants to work from home the ability to do so. But that’s not reality.
Your employees on the production floor, for example, will not likely be able to operate a machine from their home. You may need your accounting manager to be present most days in the office just because of the nature of the work. Or you may want employees to earn the right to work from home after they’ve shown their commitment by working for you for a few years.
Your remote-worker policy should be flexible enough to ensure that the work you need to get done gets done and should vary by job, responsibility and tenure.
Make no guarantees. Although it sounds like a great idea, working from home is not for everyone.
There are the obvious distractions, such as daytime TV and a warm bed. Some people simply work better in an office environment than others. They need the structure, the camaraderie, and the social environment to be at their most productive.
That doesn’t mean you don’t offer a work-from-home option for your employees. Most employment experts recommend a trial period — maybe 60 or 90 days. That way, you and your employee can both determine whether the setup is working the right way and give yourselves a methodology for evaluating its success and making changes.
For a work-from-home employee to succeed, you must also invest in the right technology.
The employee must have access to the same systems and data as would be available in the office. Using a cloud-based application or making your systems and files available through a remote connection or through a managed services company will ensure that remote employees can easily work from their home devices.
Ensuring that these employees are connected to your office systems for text and instant messaging, email and phone calls is essential. Your employee, meanwhile, must have a decent internet connection as well as the necessary devices at home — laptop, printer, phone — so that work can be performed as if in the office.
You should feel comfortable demanding the same — actually more — accessibility from your remote worker.
That’s because when an employee is remote, others will likely raise their eyebrows. “It won’t be the same,” some will say. You and your remote workers have to prove otherwise. That means that when they are called on the phone, asked to participate in meetings, messaged, emailed or otherwise contacted, they should be responding as fast — actually faster — than as if they were in your office.
If your company is using video technology, no one expects to see that person in a bathrobe just because they’re at home. There should be no scenario where your remote worker is unreachable without permission.
Ideally, any remote-working arrangement should include office time. The best ones I’ve seen aren’t completely remote. On a regular basis — weekly, monthly, quarterly — the remote employee is required to be physically present in the office where possible.
“Sometimes it’s just easier to be face to face," Veronica Gilrane, a People Analytics Manager at Google — where more than 100,000 employees are spread over 150 cities in 50 countries — wrote in a blog. “When you do have the opportunity to meet for face-to-face interactions, take advantage in order to reinforce connections forged virtually.”
So, yes, there can be challenges for both you and your employees when setting up a work-from-home arrangement. But done the right way, such a policy can not only help you cut costs, but also provide a much demanded benefit that can help you attract — and retain — good people in the long term.
Gene Marks is a certified public accountant and the owner of Marks Group, a technology and financial management consulting firm in Bala Cynwyd.