Yahoo and CEO Marissa Mayer have made up their minds on telecommuting, but your company may be debating whether to allow it. Or, perhaps, your company does allow work from home but would like to improve the process.
What should you be assessing? What are the perils and benefits? What role does your company culture play in success or failure?
I asked three people who deal with telecommuting every day for their thoughts. At the broadest level, they had three keys:
- Being prepared: Know what your company’s DNA is like and what you’d like to accomplish before enacting a work-from-home policy.
- Communication: HR and leadership must communicate the policy and monitor it afterward, and teams must communicate with each other (and maybe even more than when everyone is physically present).
- Technology: Far-flung employees can benefit from technology that brings them together, but they can also be isolated by it when it comes to innovation, collaboration and interaction.
Below are more observations and advice from David Blanke, chief operating officer/chief financial officer at Sailthru; Susan Strayer LaMotte, founder of exaqueo; and Jesse Stanchak, an editor at SmartBrief who manages SmartBlog on Social Media.
Where: Company is based in New York City.
What drove Sailthru’s policies on telecommuting?
We adhere to a Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE. What that means, very simply, is that success at Sailthru is measured by the achievement of individual, team, and company goals. We are agnostic about where you work — you can work at home or Starbucks or come into the office as you see fit, as long as you’re getting done what you need to get done. Showing up for meetings or coming into the office for the sake of just being there doesn’t get you any points. …
At Sailthru, you are empowered. Challenge the necessity of a meeting if you think it doesn’t serve a purpose. You see something that’s broken? Fix it. One of our company goals this year is to make sure Sailthru is an awesome place to work, so everything centers around that. To really do that, our aim is to hire fantastic people, give them direction and the proper resources, and let them have at it. It’s about trust. Anything else is inefficient.
Employees have unlimited vacation, too. That may sound too good to be true, but what we find is the more you give the more you get in return. And even though we have this very flexible telecommuting policy, a lot of people still opt to come into the office. We have an amazing buzz in our office. And a rock wall. Plus, we really like each other!
What are the challenges/benefits with regards to productivity, innovation, company culture?
When you have a very flexible work environment like ours, you have to be very clear about the company’s goals and how each individual fits in the picture. Otherwise, you run the risk that the company goes in one direction and the employee goes in another. From a teamwork and collaboration standpoint, it’s absolutely critical to have the right tools and communication. We use Google Hangout, Google Chat, Skype and various other solutions to make sure everyone’s plugged into what’s going on.
Also, people let their team know when they are not going to be in so there’s an expectation that someone will be attending remotely, either by phone or by video. What we find with this super-flexible arrangement is that people respond with a higher level of commitment. It also allows us to be really connected to our team members that are based outside of New York — in San Francisco and Texas. Hiring is elementally important to making sure we get this right. We stack people up against our mantra, which is “Think Big, Speak Up, Get It Done.” You have to really gravitate to that ethos for you to be successful in this type of environment.
Companies with task-oriented roles benefit greatly from telecommuting — where there’s a set task that can be completed during a set number of hours. This could include data transcription, editing, writing, etc. Companies with strong technology resources and adept employees also benefit from telecommuting. Not only do these companies have technology capabilities that allow for telecommuting, but the employee base is comfortable with technologies like video conferencing and chat functions.
My entire company is virtual — the benefits are plenty. First, the lack of bricks and mortar allow us to pass along the cost savings to clients. We can price projects more competitively allowing for increases in revenue and a higher win rate. Second, it demonstrates trust with the workforce. It shows the team I trust them to get their work done, and reward them for good work done efficiently. It also limits commuting time, especially important here in Washington, D.C. …
But this isn’t for every company or employee. Companies have to support and foster a culture where this is accepted and supported by managers, peers and customers. Employees have to be able to endure it. Meetings by video are great, but there aren’t walks from meeting to meeting. There are fewer interruptions or reasons to get up, which means you could be sitting in front of your computer for hours. Employees also have to stay focused. It’s easy to get distracted with items on your home to-do list like cooking, laundry — even sweeping the front walk. You have to ensure you’re not procrastinating with these tasks.
I think the conflict isn’t really about working from home versus working in the office. It’s a question of values. Which is more important: hiring the best possible people or having the best possible organizational culture?
I’m sure there are people out there who believe they can hire the best in the world by paying them more money or offering perks like free lunches or in-office nursery care or whatever. But the truth is that you’re always going to be limited by geography and individual circumstances. On the flip side, remote workers are always going to be at a disadvantage when it comes to missing impromptu meetings and collaborations. Isolation doesn’t foster innovation. …
I don’t think there actually is a universal right answer there. Both approaches clearly have their downsides. The right answer for a company is the answer that conforms to the culture that’s already in place. If you’re the kind of company that feels the need to closely manage workers, the need for that kind of management isn’t going to go away when you let them work offsite. If you’re the kind of company that hires people who work well independently, they won’t become slackers the minute you turn your back.
Whichever road a company ends up taking, I think it needs to make sure that its HR policies take that decision into account. If you’re going to make people come into the office, you have to compensate them for the additional inconvenience. And if you’re going to set them free, then you need to be hiring the kinds of people who can handle that responsibility.