Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues-everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I manage a small team of three entry-level employees, two of whom are new (they started about two months ago). Our company has a very lenient work from home policy - essentially, if you meet your goals and are available for important meetings, you're able to work from home with manager's approval. Different teams use this policy to varying degrees, but generally people don't take more than one day/week at most to work from home. I generally use it once every week or so myself.
Both new employees have been utilizing the working from home option quite frequently, generally two days per week. Sometimes it's a matter of necessity such as car trouble or doctor's appointment, but usually it seems to be a matter of preference. While both are meeting their goals and are very responsive when working from home, I still feel that they should be in the office more than they currently are. However, since both are doing well, I'm not sure how to frame this for them, especially if I were to reject a request to work from home. My only rational is that it makes my team look bad (those who sit near me have commented on my team not being present). Am I being old-fashioned in expecting my new employees to be in the office the majority of the time, or should I not worry about the working from home since performance hasn't suffered?
Not necessarily, but the problem here is that you haven't told them your expectations -- and the only expectations they have heard (from the company policy) say that it's okay to do what they're doing. So you need to tell them your expectations or they won't know, and that's not fair to them.
First, though, you've got to first figure out what you actually want your work-from-home policy to be and why. I'm a huge fan of telecommuting, but there are plenty of legitimate reasons for wanting people to work from the office most of the time. For example: the work you do is collaborative, it's hard to schedule meetings when people are frequently out, things often come up that need to be handled in-person, it allows you to better give feedback and input on people's work, or whatever it might be. It's also completely reasonable to want people in the office while they're new, even if it'll be fine for them to work from home more once they've been there longer. There's lots of in-person learning that goes on when people are new, even aside from formal training -- things like absorbing the culture and how you operate -- and it's generally easier as a manager to get a feel for a new person's work and give useful feedback when they're around most of the time. And these are entry-level employees, so that all goes double.
You noted that people have been commenting on how often your team is gone, and that's a consideration too. If your staff is doing something that's out of sync with your company culture and causing eyebrows to be raised, you might decide that you're willing to spend some political capital defending it -- or you might decide that you'd rather save that capital for other things.
Anyway, you need to decide where you stand on these factors and what you want your policy to be, and then you need to communicate it to people. The problem currently is that you have expectations that you haven't shared with your two new hires. You're frustrated/concerned that they're out of sync with what you want, but you haven't actually told them what you want. You need to do that, because it's not fair to penalize people (even if just mentally) for not following a rule that you never actually told them about.
You might be thinking, "But even though I didn't tell them explicitly, shouldn't they have picked up on my expectation anyway, by noticing what others on our team do?" It's true that many (even most) people will ... but not everyone, and especially not entry-level workers who generally are just figuring out workplace norms anyway. And entry-level or not, some people are literal and if the company says "you can work from home with your manager's approval," they're going to think that's the policy, period, without factoring in cultural cues about how people actually use the policy. So if you want them to do something differently, you need to tell them.
If you do end up deciding that you generally want people limiting their working from home to one day a week, I'd say this: "I want to talk to you about our work-from-home policy. In general, I prefer people to work from home no more than one day a week, because of (reasons). On rare occasions, I'm willing to approve more than that, but I'd like the default to be no more than once a week. I realize I didn't clarify this earlier, and you haven't done anything wrong by doing it more often, but going forward, please stick to this guideline."
Also, say this now rather than just rejecting their next work-from-home request and explaining it then. This is a big-picture conversation to have since they're now used to doing it a different way, not something to spring on them the next time it comes up.
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