Remote work isn't a huge deal anymore for individual workers. But what happens when you tell 300 employees all at once not to come into the office for days at a time? To find out, payroll, benefits, HR and compliance company Justworks implemented Work From Anywhere (WFA) Week across its offices. The concept, as Justworks founder and CEO Isaac Oates explains, came from the military practice of "block leave," in which an entire unit temporarily shuts down.
"We gave everyone the option to switch up their work environment at the same time," Oates says. "Not as leave, of course, but as an opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on new markets, inspire a different kind of productivity, and encourage them to get some deep work done toward their business goals."
The only caveat? Workers had to keep their regular New York City hours and meet all of Justworks' shared core responsibilities.
Oates says that, because the workers had already established good in-person connections, going remote for the week wasn't a huge shock to productivity. Even the team leadership meeting, which never had happened remotely before, took place without a hitch via video. Many of the employees took advantage of the time to visit and get insights from existing customers. People went all over the country, with some workers even hopping on planes for international excursions. But some of the workers found it was more convenient and logical to stay put and focus on deep, local work, conducting phone calls and meetings around town. Most came back with actionable insights into new markets, customer case studies, and other information.
The sense of energy in the office that first Monday we all came back was pretty remarkable. That actually really stuck with me--seeing that people wanted to be back and seeing each other. Since we'd all broken our routines at the same time, it was a very different feeling than coming back from vacation or a long weekend.
Plus, there wasn't the usual cloud of "catching up" hanging over anyone's head. That first week back, I actually asked everyone to take a survey and share their experience with WFA--97 percent of the team said they were able to accomplish their goals and get in touch with their co-workers, 98 percent said it was a welcome change of scenery, and 97 percent thought we should repeat WFA next year.
The interpersonal result is consistent with the assertion by Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, that most individuals don't want to work exclusively from home--they all eventually want some degree of social contact. Oates adds that, in addition to the psychological refresh, WFA was also important as a test. The company proved it could keep everything rolling even if the offices had to physically shut down, so the WFA approach now is rolled into the Justworks emergency continuity plan.
The hurdles you have to face before it can work
According to Oates, the most common hang-up companies have with remote work is ensuring that the workers treat the flexible work as real work. The best way to address this right off the bat is with selective hiring that guarantees you've got people with the grit to get the job done.
He also recommends setting clear expectations (e.g., travel arrangements and expenses) ahead of time so the process is both safe and successful. Little details, such as whether someone has the right charger available, have to be addressed to keep the policy from falling apart.
Lastly, you also have to acknowledge that there's no one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, some jobs (e.g., software development) are more conducive to flexibility, whereas others (e.g., sales and operations) need more structure or have to be covered at different times.
"I think the majority of companies can overcome these discrepancies by focusing less on broad, top-down policy and more on empowering their team leads," Oates advises. "Managers and department heads are leading the work. So, in my view, they should be able to take ownership and create the policies that work best for their team getting work done."
Modern workers demand a modern work plan, but the design is up to you
Justworks' experiment shows that purposely shoving hundreds of employees out of your offices at a time is far from featherbrained nonsense. It can help you gather information you wouldn't get otherwise, improve energy and connection between employees, and even ensure you're ready for unexpected hurdles. In that positive context, Oates says that employers should be responsive to the fact that workers--especially Millennials--are desperate for work-life balance, especially given that today's workers are so comfortable with the technologies that enable non-office work.
"In general," Oates concludes, "workplace flexibility is going to look different for every company, and possibly even every team. Work From Anywhere Week was just one thing that worked for us, but there are countless other solutions that [might] work for your business."