I recently had a conversation with some fellow small business owners and was surprised to learn that many of them don't allow employees to telecommute. After years of telecommuting myself and allowing my employees to do the same, I believe business owners' objections are out of date and misguided.
We all know that today's technology allows employees to be productive from almost anywhere. Some of my best writing is done at a local Starbucks or while sitting at my kitchen table. I'm not the only one. Companies large and small have implemented flexible work schedules, including telecommuting. Offering this option leads to a happier and more productive workforce.
But that's not to say a work-from-home policy is something to enter into lightly. It must be implemented correctly to get the greatest benefit. Here are five steps you should take when considering a work from home program.
Set guidelines and expectations.
Entrepreneurs are a bunch of rule breakers. We bristle at the notion of formal guidelines. We are opposed to having too many rules and policies, preferring to keep the company structure loose and flexible. But for issues like telecommuting, I have learned it's important to set the ground rules for your employees. Many workers actually perform better with a clear structure.
The guidelines need to include direction on when and how telecommuting is allowed. Is this something that employees have to earn? Do they need to reach a certain job title or have been with the company a specific length of time? Is there a limit or a framework--a certain number of days per month or per week? How do work from home days map to vacation or holidays? Employees always want to "work from home" the days before or after a holiday or vacation: Are you ok with that?
Use telecommuting to your advantage.
Provide a clear distinction between what is a work from home day and what is a vacation day. For example, I encourage employees to work from home if they have a doctor's appointment. In my experience, coming in and out of the office around the appointment is disruptive and unproductive. Keeping the day flexible allows the employee to get their tasks accomplished on their own schedule.
On the other hand, if an employee needs to stay home with a sick child, that may not qualify as a telecommuting day, since their focus is not likely to be on their job.
Trust, but verify.
In my conversation with my business owner friends, their biggest objection to telecommuting was reduced productivity. But in the same breath most admitted they spend a lot of time on work outside the office, often accomplishing a great deal. Their barrier was pretty basic: a lack of trust in their employees.
If you're concerned about productivity or accountability, have clear ground rules that apply to employees working from home. For example, presence in meetings is still expected, via conference call or Skype. Phone calls and emails need the same level of responsiveness as one would expect from those working in the office. At my company, we use instant messenger to communicate, and it is a requirement that a work from home employee be signed into the system so they are accessible.
Simply put it this way: This is is a day away from the office, not a day to ignore the office. Employees are expected to participate even if not present.
My experience has been that employees are often the most productive, especially when conducting focused work like reporting or writing, when not at the office surrounded by other distractions. And increased productivity boosts the bottom line.
With most jobs this is easy to quantify. It might be the number of calls a customer service representative handles in the office vs. when working from home. We do a lot of report writing for our customers and for many of our employees, there is a marked improvement in the report progress completed at home versus in office. For other jobs, it may be a judgement call to determine if productivity remains at least consistent or improves.
Here in Atlanta, our commutes are some of the worst in the nation. Allowing employees the flexibility to work from home at least one day a week not only helps solve this problem, it also reduces my company's carbon footprint and increases my employees' quality of life.
Know when it's not working.
Telecommuting is not going to work for everyone. Some employees need the structure of a set workday and close supervision. Create a system for tracking productivity to help you determine if the company is losing money or if work quality is slipping because an employee is not effective working remotely. I was impressed when one of my employees recognized his own inability to focus when working from home and opted to not participate in the program.
Managers need to be flexible and adjust their management style. A micro-manager type may not embrace the idea of not seeing people at their desks and may need some coaching on how to loosen the reins and trust their employees to get the job done.
What I tried to impress on my fellow entrepreneurs that day is that telecommuting, when handled effectively, can give your company a competitive advantage. In addition to boosting productivity, it can also be an important recruiting and retention tool to differentiate your company from your competition.