One thing has become clear during the past year of lockdowns and other measures associated with the pandemic: Working From Home (WFH), or, as it is increasingly becoming known, Working From Anywhere (WFA) is going to be very much a feature of the “New Normal” business environment.
It rapidly accelerated a movement that was slowly gaining momentum and means that companies need to ensure that they can benefit from the many potential advantages of this – including reduced office costs, the ability to utilise a wider range of talent globally without incurring immigration/visa issues, and, potentially, a happier and more productive workforce.
It’s arguably this last point that is the most challenging for business leaders today, for although it means largely eliminating the costs and time associated with commuting to work each day, potentially reducing living costs and improving quality of life through being able to live further away from major centres and spending more time with family members, remote workers often find themselves unable to function as effectively as before for a variety of reasons and the lack of workplace interaction and sense of camaraderie can also lead to issues. In fact, recent research shows that only around a quarter of workers want to work remotely all the time, and around half want to work in the office full-time or only 1 day a week.
So, how can business leaders ensure that they can reap the benefits associated with WFH while minimising the downsides? For the purposes of this article, I will focus on WFH as it would typically apply in the Small-Medium Enterprise environment, as large multinational organisations have additional layers of complexity around this.
One place to start is by producing a Work From Home Policy to set out the parameters and expectations from both sides. Eliminating, so far as is possible, areas of doubt is key.
The policy should cover such areas as who is eligible to work from home (not everyone is, of course, depending on their roles) and the approval process to be followed for those who are eligible and wish to work from home, the working hours expectation – whether time-based, task-based or some combination of both – and how to keep records of this, communications channels and which should be used for various purposes (e.g. Zoom for meetings, Slack for team channels, email for longer communications – along with rules on who should be copied and when), the need for security standards (perhaps a company-wide VPN for all work functions), dress code (yes, to keep up work standards a dress code is recommended), and so on. It will, of course, be important to get feedback on the policy when circulated (ideally anonymously) so that any appropriate tweaks can be made, and to have acknowledgement of receipt by all staff so that it forms a record (digital signatures are a good idea here). This needs to be a “living document” that will change as circumstances require, so constant feedback from staff and management is essential.
It’s also a good idea for WFH staff to be given a “How To” guide as, for most, it will be a novel and, sometimes, unsettling experience. Apart from specifying the equipment they need to have available (much will be company supplied of course, so there will be setup costs for additional equipment), provide information on things like the importance of morning routines before starting work and how to make the best of what had previously been commute time (perhaps replacing this with yoga or meditation, for example), why working in your PJs is a bad idea, how to maintain focus and energy through the right nutrition, the importance of taking short breaks to move around and, preferably, getting some fresh air, and, of course, the need for a dedicated workspace away from distractions like the TV, bedroom and eating areas, along with some information on seating, lighting and so on.
From a leadership perspective, maintaining ongoing personal contact with your team is even more important when WFH than in an office environment where it’s easier to talk with them face to face. Although monitoring software is widely available, looking at what everyone is doing on their computers, and when, this is not really recommended as it indicates a lack of trust. Having always-open communication channels such as Slack and regular online team update sessions (at least weekly) are critical to ensure everyone still feels part of an inclusive team and knows what is happening. Ideally, leaders should check in with each team member on a daily basis, using video conferencing to keep face-to-face contact as much as possible. Use these sessions to not only see how their workload is progressing but also to understand any issues they’re facing so that you can reduce problem areas as much as possible. Also, don’t forget the usefulness of ad hoc virtual “pop-ins” – a sort of virtual Management by Wandering Around – although this is often best done using asynchronous tools such as Slack (you wouldn’t interrupt somebody in an office, normally, would you?). And, of course, let the team know that communication is very much a two-way street and they should involve you whenever necessary – remember that the best leaders are much more mentors and coaches to their team members than managers.
Ultimately, the WFH environment should be very much a win-win: happier and more productive staff with lower rates of absenteeism and staff turnover, coupled with lower operating costs for the business. They key is setting expectations, measuring results (not just hours) and ensuring open bi-directional communication, while understanding that not everyone wants to work remotely and being able to accommodate the differing needs of your workforce.