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8 Rules to Make Telecommuting Work

Culture is key at Blinds.com. But letting employees work from home is a crucial part of maintaining that culture.
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Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's CEO, is in good company by recently mandating that all employees report into the office rather than work from home. Zappos, famous for its culture, wouldn't have become what it is with employees located off-campus in disparate locations. In fact, one of CEO Tony Hsieh's rules for success is to maximize serendipity by creating the "opportunity for meaningful collisions." People don't collide when they're miles apart.

We've won many awards at Blinds.com, including "Best Place to Work," and it's principally due to our culture. So you might think I'd be opposed to having people work at home--away from that culture.

But as CEO, the linchpin of culture development, about 25 percent of my own time is spent productively working from home when I need solitude to think without any distractions or have a personal appointment. So why can't that work for my employees? I think it can--and it does. For the last three years, we've had about 20 percent of our workforce regularly working from home (WFH).

Here's why I've come down on the side of WFH--and eight tips to make it work for you:

1. Understand WFH limitations.

Everyone needs to be conscious of creating effortless communication. We have all-hands meetings every Friday which will soon be live-streamed to all WFH employees. Our managers coach our sales and service decorators every week--either in person, or over the phone now using video. Are there times when we require all of our team to be physically present? Of course! I'm sure your office also has some trainings and conversations that just cannot be replicated virtually.  Know your limits for smart communication.

2. It's not about control.

Many believe that the main reasons for requiring people to work in the office is to maintain better control and increase productivity.  If that's your case, it might be that you don't have the right environment, metrics, compensation, and culture in place. If you don't get those right, it doesn't matter where people work. Conversely, when done thoughtfully, giving people the freedom to work elsewhere can be more productive and great for retention too.

As Charles Handy wrote in his autobiography, Myself and Other More Important Matters, "...people know instinctively that there has to be trust if any organization is going to work... Yet organizations need trust if they are not going to clutter themselves up with rules, checks and checkers... trust them to be left alone to get on with it." When your employees feel trusted, they'll do what needs to be done--and more.

3. Trust, yet verify. 

Set guidelines and clear, objective metrics to be met, no matter where your employees work. And if those metrics are not met, the employee loses the privilege to work from home until those metrics are met. Shifting from an in-office to remote working experience won't go perfectly on your first try. Provide the infrastructure and support your team needs to reach those high performance levels once more if they find roadblocks on the way.

4. When employees benefit, you benefit.

We have many employees with children or aging parents and when they get sick it's an unnecessary hardship to leave them at home or be stressed about taking time off from work. So our "attendance" improves when our employees have the flexibility to work remotely, where they are needed most. Our IT team has configured the phone, email, and chat systems to seamlessly integrate WFH employees into the normal office queue. Customers get the same great service and many of our WFH employees remain in the top echelons of their departments, despite their varied locations.

5. Get reacquainted.

Require everyone on your team to come into the office at least once (or twice) per week to touch base in person. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but extended absence also makes the culture grow weaker. Be sure your WFH team is included on in-office cultural activities; even they are not scheduled to be in the office, so they too have the opportunity to connect over some fun.

6. Appreciate the lower overhead costs.

Our business has now surpassed $100 million in sales, and we're focusing on streamlining and scaling all processes. Allowing people to work from home saves overhead, so it's a great way to build your business with lower costs and happier employees.

7. Use it as a way to increase the talent pool.

Think of the possibilities if you didn't have to narrow your job candidates by zip code. Because of our WFH policy, we can hire people who aren't in close proximity to the office, which means we have access to more talented people.

8. Don't forget about a disaster recovery plan.

Every business needs to think about the unthinkable, when a fire, earthquake, flu outbreak, or any other wide-scale disruption could bring your business to a halt. The ability to have everyone work from home (which we have) allows us the peace of mind and financial security to endure such a catastrophe. In a couple of weeks we're moving to a new office and during the transition, we'll all be working from home for almost a week. WFH capabilities give us that flexibility.

Our turnover is under 5 percent and we're anticipating another profitable year--no doubt due, in part, to our flexibility with our employees' schedules. So maybe Marissa and Tony should think again. What do you think?

IMAGE: jeremylevinedesign/Flickr
Last updated: Mar 12, 2013

JAY STEINFELD | CEO, Blinds.com

JAY STEINFELD is the founder and CEO of Blinds.com, the industry leader in online window covering sales that was recently acquired by The Home Depot. Jay is a passionate advocate for amazing (and profitable) company culture.




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