March 30, 2009
King's Corner

Home From Work

With the maturation of collaboration technologies, including Instant Messaging, Web Conferencing, Video Conferencing and improved performance of home-based Internet Service Providers (ISP), thousands of companies have embraced Work From Home (WFH) as an option for many employees. The reasons are compelling. If implemented correctly, the companies who employ WFH can see benefits through the following:

  1. Utilize a “Hoteling” or “Just In Time (JIT)” concept for office workspace, where employees reserve space on days when they’ll be in the office. The idea being that if 20% of your workforce is WFH on most days, the company only needs 80% of the office space it would need if everyone was in the office, translating to a 20% savings in office rental costs.
  2. Employee Satisfaction is derived by giving people the opportunity to WFH, thereby resulting in increased loyalty and improved employee retention.
  3. In some cases, there can actually be an increase in productivity. Just think, when people attend a meeting in person, they are single-tasking. However, if there is a conference call, people can stay somewhat in touch with their email, IMs, etc. This is great when a question is posed, nobody in the room knows the answer, but somebody on the call can find someone via IM who does know the answer.

There are clear benefits for the employee as well. As noted above, there is an Employee Satisfaction element that benefits both the Employer and the Employee. Additionally, there are other tangible benefits for the employee, including the following:

  1. Reduced time commuting, i.e. if the work day is 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. for example, the employee “commutes” to their home office at 8:29 a.m. and “commutes” home at 5:01 p.m. instead of an hour each way.
  2. Reduced commuting costs, i.e. less gas, public transportation costs, etc.
  3. Can eat lunch at home, instead of having to buy lunch at work or package a lunch and commute with it.
  4. Can stay “casual” instead of Business Casual or Business Attire.

At this juncture, you are probably wondering what my point is. Here you go. The problem with most WFH programs is not with any of the above benefits. It is with the actual implementation of the WFH programs. Much like my article on the appropriate use of offshore outsourcing, without proper change management and implementation guidelines, WFH programs can stray off course and adversely impact the company and ultimately result in significantly reduced productivity. I’ll repeat that last point and I’ll state it differently. Currently, most WFH programs result in significantly reduced productivity. The inverse is also true, there are many WFH programs that have shown cost-savings and improved productivity. Unfortunately, these programs are the minority.

From my personal and direct observations, here is a sample list of reasons why WFH programs function more like “HFW (Home From Work)” programs:

  1. Employees view the program as an “entitlement” instead of a “privilege”. I hear statements such as, “I can’t come in for that meeting, that’s my WFH day”, and “don’t schedule the meeting on that day, I want to attend in person, and that’s my WFH day”. I’ve seen the chairperson of meetings try to move meetings to a different day, only to find out that it’s someone else’s WFH day. Sorry, if there’s a critical meeting that warrants your attendance in person, and it happens to fall on your WFH day, come into the office. Remember, it’s a privilege, not an entitlement.
  2. Phone calls and flashing IMs (Instant Messages) unanswered. Ahm, if you are working from home, there are no conference rooms. There’s a bathroom and there’s a kitchen at lunch time. Other than those obvious needs, you should be at your computer. If you are not answering your phone and you are not responding to IMs, then chances are, you are not WFH but rather, you are HFW.
  3. “I’ve come down with the flu, so I am going to WFH today”. I hope the problems with this one are too obvious for me to explain.
  4. “My child is sick, so I am going to WFH today”. If your child is sick and warrants your attention enough that you cannot come to work on a planned in-office day, then chances are you ought to take a partial sick day. Sure, there are times throughout the day where you may be able to attend a conference call and/or get some dedicated work done. However, it’s not a full day. And you shouldn’t be credited with working a full day. And even if you are able to work the full day, e.g. your child is 10, is largely self-sufficient and does not need constant attention, swap out your WFH day. I see so many times where a person has their standard WFH day on Friday, their kid is sick on Thursday only, but they WFH both days. If you need to swap your WFH day due to illness, feel free. But that sense of entitlement for their “normal” WFH day is problematic in this example.
  5. Managers of collaborative efforts who WFH more than once per week. Before you freak out on me, let me explain. Collaboration means that multiple resources are contributing to one output, e.g. designers and developers of an integrated application. If your designers and developers are in the same city (which is not always the case, but when they are), management of those resources and their productivity cannot be easily achieved by WFH multiple days per week. Argue with me all you want. And there are probably pockets of companies and resources where this is wildly successful. Again, from my experiences (which are not few), I have yet to see a 40% or more WFH manager succeed in a collaborative development environment.
  6. No day per week with “all hands on deck”. Not as critical as some of the above points, but nothing replaces the weekly in-person checkpoint for collaborative efforts. If every day, someone on the team is WFH, you never quite achieve that checkpoint.
  7. By and large, the most negative aspect of WFH programs that function more like HFW programs is the overall lack of intensity of the effort of those WFH. In sports, they call it the “killer instinct”. In business, I call it “intensity”. One thing I challenge all Kenway employees with is the following, “If your client was sitting behind you during all your billable time, would they be happy?”. The same can be said for anyone WFH. “If your boss was sitting behind you during your chargeable WFH time, would they be happy?”. You can reasonably predict what I think the answer to that question is.
  8. No metrics on performance on WFH days. To ensure productivity on WFH days, particularly for those resources in “do-er” roles, a plan of what is to be accomplished during the WFH day should be created and managed. Without one, you encourage the WFH day to become a HFW day.

In conclusion, I will say something I inferred in the beginning. The benefits of a successful WFH program cannot be overlooked. However, simply telling employees to WFH one day per week will NOT lead to success. Carefully managing the change and training the resources on the interpersonal and cultural dynamics of a WFH program is critical. And of all things, convey that the program is a PRIVILEGE, neither a “right” nor an “entitlement”. Otherwise, you will be implementing a HFW program, and those fail every time.

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