This runs the risk of making me look incredibly old-fashioned and closed minded. I’m OK with that, because I think a lot of entrepreneurs and managers secretly struggle with these thoughts about work from home policies, but don’t want to voice them…for fear of being perceived as old-fashioned or closed minded.
And lest you think I am a total curmudgeon when you read this, know that I have fully come around. I would not hesitate to run a 100% remote company.
So, here I go. You already know the obvious: working from home is on the rise. In tech it goes further, with many companies adopting a “work from anywhere” policy. It’s not really just a nice perk anymore, it’s a requirement. Companies won’t be able to attract the most engaged, most productive, smartest people if they don’t offer remote flexibility.
I was a very late adopter to adopting a work from home culture in my last company. As a co-founder, I personally worked everywhere. All the time. I worked at the office. I worked on my couch. In my bed (not recommended). In my daughter’s bed (also not recommended, as my typing kept her from falling asleep). At my kitchen table. In my car during the downtime of shuttling the kids around to their activities (actually, remarkably productive). I just worked anywhere and everywhere I could, because there was work to be done.
Because of this, I knew that my most productive time was not in the office. I certainly got important work done in the office, but it’s not where I wrote a great ebook, or created my next webinar. If I needed to actually do deep work, working from home was my best option. Likewise, if I was staring down a calendar that was packed with back-to-back meetings, I knew that those meetings would be less draining if I did them from the comfort of my home via video conferencing.
So, I had first-hand experience that working from home helped me be more productive and more energized. But I still didn’t jump head first into the work from culture for the office.
There are many reasons why the “work from anywhere” trend took me awhile to warm up to:
- I am a control freak.
- I love the spontaneous collaboration that can spring up sitting across the table from someone.
- I love to ‘feel’ the energy in the air at the office.
- I love the connection that comes from being in the same room with someone.
- I like to see people and look them in the eye. Body language is my bible.
- The thought of work from home just gave me a pit in my stomach sometimes.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust our staff. I was totally OK with it in theory, it was just the reality that always gave me an uncomfortable feeling. I worried what our company culture would be like without the pulse of an office brimming with human energy and interaction. I imagined a quiet, eerily empty office and that worried me.
Even with my personal reservations, there came a time that we simply had to allow work from home. I knew that it was the respectful way to manage our team of very responsible adults. Having them work from the office all the time started to feel like perhaps they thought we didn’t trust them. It made the relationship between company and employee a little too similar to a parent-child dynamic. We didn’t need to keep employees under our watchful eye. I truly believe the adage that if you can’t trust someone to get their work done from home, why would you trust them to be an employee at all?
It was also just the larger work trends in general that forced my hand. We had to support remote work in order to recruit and retain the best people. In our marketing technology industry, it’s the norm.
The final straw that caused me to finally make peace with a flexible work from home policy was when a rather new, but highly talented, employee left our company unexpectedly, citing her long commute. I offered her the option to work from home, but it was too late. She had already accepted a remote position elsewhere and didn’t feel right backing out. During her exit interview, she commented that if she had been able to work from home she never would have considered leaving. She hadn’t asked us if work from home was possible, she just assumed it was off the table since no one worked from home. It was an eye opener for me.
So we did it.
But we had some stumbles and in the end had to create basic agreements about how work from home would actually work. I hated to have to make it more complicated than, “Work from home if you want to”, but we found there are aspects of work from home that are murky.
When everyone doesn’t follow the same work norms, things can get weird. And feel more complicated than they should.
It’s so easy to say “we work remote” in a splashy blog post to make your company seem modern and cool. It’s another thing to actually run a business like that. There are deliverables, and team dependencies, and deadlines and meetings (gasp!) with colleagues. Most importantly, there are customer expectations.
I found that “work from home” unintentionally morphed into “work from anywhere” which morphed into “Sorry I wasn’t online at all yesterday afternoon and missed that meeting, I ran to the mechanic and it took longer than I thought.”
We even had a few unpleasant situations. Like the person who was scheduled to attend a customer call on a Monday and declined because “when I work from home on Mondays I am alone with the baby and I don’t think you want a screaming 4-month old on the call.”
Wait, what!? Was it a work from home day or a child care day? Because those things are mutually exclusive with an infant.
We had employees who would work from home for two or three weeks straight. Fine in theory, but when they live moments from the office, you start to miss them, and also wonder why they don’t want some face time with their peers and leaders.
We even had a few junior staffers go MIA for a day or two, thinking it was fine because they had “worked all weekend and needed to go decompress for a couple of days… ” Um, Ok that’s fine, but they didn’t think to tell anyone, or check in to make sure that was OK first?
Weird new work norms were springing up everywhere and along with it my discomfort. We didn’t know who was working when, which is theoretically fine when everything is getting done. But it’s distracting when people are constantly wondering who is working, who isn’t and where so-and-so is. More importantly, our business definitely couldn’t support a ‘work from anywhere, anytime’ culture, because we had customers, who expected us to attend to them during normal business hours. And, just as important, we had teams who needed to collaborate within expected time-of-day norms.
Even though we got into some murky areas, fixing it was easy, and we didn’t need to revert back to our old “no work from home” ways. We just needed to put the spirit of our work from home policy in writing. Once we did that, we fell into established norms that worked well for us.
My guiding principle for work from home is: “Get your work done. Meet your deadlines. Achieve your KPIs. Be responsive and available. Do that from wherever you want. Within reason.”
For me the devil was in the details. While I didn’t want to run a ‘command and control’ organization, I also wanted to make sure we maintained our collaborative, communicative, intimate culture and I felt that we had to all live by the same principles. Seeing them in black and white makes them look so very obvious. Like, of course these wouldn’t need to be documented, everyone should know to manage themselves this way when working from home. But still, based on my experience, everyone wasn’t working by the same set of rules, so it was actually important to get them down in writing:
- Let people know when you won’t be in the office. Note, it’s not ‘let your manager know’. That leads to a bunch of questions all day, “Do you know where John is? Is Jane coming in at all today?”. I just asked that people publicly post via Slack so that everyone knew if they was remote that day.
- Stay available during the work day and be responsive to colleagues and customers. Of course sometimes you have to put on your DND to get some work done (especially ‘makers’!). But in general, to have norms around how and when people can collaborate, and for transparency, I think it’s important that people who work together should stay responsive to each other via slack, video calls, phone and/or email.
- Attend all meetings. Via video. This one is super important to me. With our ever decreasing attention spans, it’s easy enough to get distracted and tune out during an in-person meeting, let alone a remote meeting. Being on video helps attendees stay attentive. It is also how you bridge the ‘virtual’ gap—your emotions, your facial expressions, your body language….these things need to be seen.
- Keep everyone posted. I don’t think you need to be telling everyone when you are headed to the kitchen for a cup of tea. But, when stepping away for more than a few minutes (for example, to run an errand or to run out to lunch), I think you should let your team know. This is not micromanaging, it’s just practical. And far more efficient because it eliminates the “Is Joe coming back today?” stuff, which is a distraction and time waster.
And what about that whole childcare thing that was my first indication our informal work from home policy had gone off the rails? It ended up being pretty easy to clarify our position on this as well. If someone was home with a kiddo and could still do their work, be responsive to colleagues and customers and attend all their meetings, that was just a regular work from home day. But if someone was home with a kiddo and could not do those things, we asked that they submit PTO for that day.
So, all in all, I learned to embrace, and love, a work from home culture. I think it helps employee morale, increases tenure/decreases turnover, increases productivity, and creates better work/life balance. It also sets the right tone of trust and accountability. In the end, we were all responsible adults who trusted each other to do our best work at that’s really all that matters.
And, as an end note, I should say that my big fear about work from home—that we would lose the energy and buzz pulse in the physical office, did happen. When a large percentage of staff is working from home on any given day, the office feels like a ghost town. I personally hate it. But it is what it is and I accept it as a by product of running a modern company today. Everyone will not always be in the office. The buzz happens now in video calls and in Slack (or the equivalent).
If you want stats on work from home trends, you can find them here. If you want to be convinced to adopt a work from home policy, you can read this.