If the famous play were ever to be adapted to today’s workplace, Prince Hamlet’s dilemma might be expressed this way: “To work from home or to not work from home—that is the question.”
Indeed, work-at-home arrangements have been fiercely debated for some time now. Every HR talent professional I’ve met has an opinion about it. You’ve heard all the arguments for and against, so I won’t bore you by rehashing them again here.
They’re called by different names—flexible-work arrangement, telecommuting, remote work, telework or teleworking. And work-at-home arrangements seemed to be all the rage until they weren’t in May 2013 when CEO Marissa Mayer told Yahoo’s employees they could no longer work from home. Best Buy and others quickly followed suit until it seemed like a trend that might have seen its day.
Mayer cited a comprehensive study from Harvard Medical School’s Isaac Kohane, which seemed to draw a connection between the nearness of one’s colleagues and the amount of innovation that took place. Maybe she had point: A lot of talent professionals still feel the same way today.
But is working from home right for employees at your organization? That really is the question and the answer depends on a number of factors, all of which defy a cookie-cutter approach. The pros and cons of working from home have to be weighed against the unique demands and goals of each individual organization.
Here are three things to consider when making an evaluation.
Can We Afford the Risks to Employee Productivity?
This is the question most organizations ask when it comes to working from home, but I’m not sure it’s the right one. I mean, I get it: Employers want employees to stay engaged and fulfill their end of the employee deal, while employees want work-life balance. It’s a difficult balancing act for HR talent professionals: The risk of diminished employee productivity on the one hand, and the risk of employee disengagement on the other.
But, really, they’re one in the same, aren’t they? When it comes to productivity, employee engagement holds sway for at-home work situations as it does for at-office work scenarios. The risks of productivity failure and goofing-off seem to grow to the degree that employees feel disconnected to the organization or disconnected from a purpose that’s larger than their own (which may be indicative of a larger organizational leadership problem). What’s more, work-from-home arrangements seem to work best at organizations where a culture of communication and trust has been carefully cultivated. For example, you can study these organizations: Kaplan, Aetna, and Intuit, three of 2015’s Top 100 Companies With Remote Jobs, to learn more about best practices in relation to remote hiring programs. Kaplan is a leader in work-life flexibility in the education industry; Aetna has built on 20 years of remote work practices; and Intuit is well known for seeking the best talent, regardless of location. (1)
Can the Job Be Done Remotely?
Again, whether a job can be performed remotely is the first question most organizations ask when considering work-at-home arrangements, but this may be a fundamental management error, according to clinical psychologist Aubrey Daniels of Aubrey Daniels International: “The decision should be based on whether the person has earned the privilege of working at home. If the person is a poor performer at work, they will most certainly be a poor performer at home.” (2)
Instead of asking if a job can be performed remotely, other firms focus on the how-to of work-at-home arrangements, where technology and collaboration software help ensure efficiency and accountability. A marketing and PR firm in New York City, Marquet Media, builds accountability and makes sure deadlines are met by having employees submit detailed weekly updates when working off-site. Meanwhile, over at AlphaCard in Portland, Oregon, Communication Manager Ellen Arndt says her company uses a cloud-based based project management service to track daily assignments: “Employees must record what projects they plan to work on at home, and then check off what they were able to complete at the end of the day. Harnessing this tool allows supervisors to have visibility into productivity patterns and provides accountability to employees,” she says. (3)
Have We Fostered A Culture of Communication and Trust?
This may be the most important question for organizations to ask, as work-at-home arrangements seem to succeed or fail based on trust issues: “Can we be sure that employees will do the work or will they flit the time away?” Cultural issues are central to the success of work-at-home arrangements, where organizations can cultivate trust with remote workers during the onboarding process by inviting them to visit the home office and participate in team meetings over the course of a few days. They can also provide opportunities for ongoing two-way communication and feedback through a weekly Skype call, where work-at-home employees have opportunities to interact with team members and influence the direction of the department where they work.
What’s more, as previously mentioned, a number of easy-to-implement technology and software solutions can help you to build a culture of communication while increasing the level of trust and collaboration between your organization and work-at-home employees, including:
- Videoconferencing tools, including Google Hangout, provide a way for weekly team meetings to happen face-to-face, which can facilitate a closer bond between office and work-at-home employees.
- Yammer is a versatile social network for businesses that resides securely behind your company’s firewall, facilitating social collaboration and instant updates when videoconferencing isn’t necessary.
- Cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) tools can provide real-time access to notes, documents and updates for employees, regardless of their location.
- A number of web-based project management tools can provide a way for employees to see ongoing and new project activity updates. (4)
In short, work-at-home arrangements allow organizations to source the smartest and most capable talent available, not just those who live within driving distance of their corporate office(s). And while the ifs and hows of work-at-home implementations will continue to be worked out based on the unique needs of individual organizations, don’t expect the trend to go away anytime soon: Among the non-self-employed population, regular work-at-home arrangements have grown by 103% since 2005; 3.7 million employees (2.8% of the workforce) now work from home at least half the time; and this happened while the overall employee population grew by 1.9% from 2013 to 2014, and the number of telecommuting employees grew by 5.6%, according to 2016 statistics. (5)
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(1., & 3.) Sutton Fell, Sara. Lessons Learned From 3 Companies That Have Long Embraced Remote Work. Fortune, by Entrepreneur. (Accessed July 11, 2016): http://fortune.com/2015/02/12/lessons-learned-from-3-companies-that-have-long-embraced-remote-work/
(2) Myers, Randy. The Great Debate: Should You Let Employees Work From Home? Entrepreneur, June 2013 (Accessed July 11, 2016): https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/226888
(4) Smith, Anthony. Workers Without Borders: Managing the Remote Revolution. Entrepreneur. March 2015. (Accessed July 11, 2016):
(5) GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com. Latest Telecommuting Statistics. 2016 Update. (Accessed July 12, 2016): http://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics
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