HOK’s Robin Ellerthorpe in his Grand Rapids, Mich., home office
Sue Shellenbarger’s recent Wall Street Journal piece on “‘Working from Home’ Without Slacking Off” reminded me of the question so many clients ask about the benefits and drawbacks of home working.
HOK gets drawn into the conversation because when our clients’ employees work at home full- or even part-time, they typically lose their assigned seat in the office. With more and more people working outside the office, large portions of office buildings can sit empty for long periods and there can be less of a reason to be there. Heck, with everyone away from the office, will there even be people to collaborate with for those who do show up?
What are we gaining and what are we losing with so many people working from home? I posed that question to two HOK workplace experts who work at home full-time (Robin Ellerthorpe in Grand Rapids and Robyn Baxter in Calgary) and two more who sit in offices (Gordon Wright in San Francisco and Mike McKeown in Dallas).
My last day reporting to an office was April 16, 2004. Without any preparation, I went through the anxieties of separation from a nine-to-five workplace to the “anytime-anywhere” work life. The stages included:
Guilt: Am I working hard enough?
Despair: Is anyone out there?
Acceptance: I can be productive!
At first, conference calls overwhelmed my existence. Learning to participate in teleconferences, which could be continuous throughout the day, while measuring human interaction at the level I was used to by reading body language and voice nuances was replaced by double- or triple-tasking with the inevitably embarrassing, “Would you repeat the question?” I wondered whether I was the only one guilty of this and if it made me more productive.
My 14-hour days, which included four hours of commuting, have been replaced by 8 to 10-hour days with no commute. I lost daily interaction with local workers in an office. Meetings became shorter and more productive.
My employees are working from home and are more productive. How do I know? I task them and ask them. They are accountable to assigned clients and to me. Do they slack off? Yes, absolutely (at least I hope so). In the end, they continue to outperform my expectations. How do I know? Their clients tell me.
I’ll respond with two perspectives: as an HOK workplace consultant with client experiences and as a home-based worker.
As a consultant:
I am working with three clients who are each at very different stages of alternative workplace strategies. One is well into it. Another is in the initial start-up phase. The third is still trying to figure out what ‘it’ is.
One thing all three have in common is a wariness of trusting people they can’t see working. Some would argue that assuming people who are sitting at their desk are working also is risky.
The key word is TRUST. In a traditional management model of ‘control and tell,’ it’s not natural or easy. But new business management practices as well as occupancy and employee engagement efforts are teaching us that TRUST is the key. Leaders who are comfortable with their ability to inspire and motivate their teams have less trouble than the bosses who ‘boss.’
Today’s workers generally suffer from too much to do. Slacking off really isn’t an option. The bigger concern could be ensuring that they maintain a balance and actually turn off work at some point.
The biggest challenge in a home-based or other non-traditional work model is helping managers become better leaders. Some have a long way to go. None of my clients have considered anything like the security systems mentioned in The Wall Street Journal article. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but this simply would not be acceptable to most HR professionals here.
As a home-based worker:
For more than 10 years, my closest teammates and my boss were in another country. As a longtime home worker on a geographically remote team, I can’t imagine Big Brother watching/reporting through the systems mentioned in the article. My organization’s network did monitor ‘inappropriate’ site access, but I was not aware of more detailed reporting.
Certainly employees can find ways to ‘work around’ the system. Most of us have personal computers at home. And what about the fear of employees doing laundry during the day? Should we monitor electrical surges?
If expectations are clear, motivation is strong and, most importantly, TRUST is the basis of your teams’ relationships — including your leader — it doesn’t really matter where you are. You will work hard and do whatever it takes to do your best.
I’ve been a worker from home and managed an international team of home-based employees while at Novartis.
With the right tools and technology, many jobs can be effectively accomplished from a home office environment. While it can save a company significant real estate costs, it will only be effective if employees deliver the equivalent work product.
By introducing computer-monitoring technology into the home work environment as mentioned in the article, management is relying on task monitoring to determine productivity rather than setting productivity goals. If they are really interested in productivity, why monitor computer activity unless it’s against company policy? Instead, they should manage the effectiveness of their employees.
Here are two examples:
In the early 2000s, Novartis North America had more than 5,000 home-based employees across sales, marketing and finance functions.
HR leadership was concerned that these home-based workers were less productive than their office-based counterparts. As a result, they developed key performance metrics for several job descriptions that allowed productivity to be measured by employee. At the end of the study, HR determined that the home office employees were actually more productive in terms of job completion and task accomplishment than their office-based counterparts.
Another outcome of this study was that Novartis management found that to reduce concerns about non-work activities during the work day, managers needed coaching and training on how to manage home-based employees.
A large financial services firm looked at several productivity measures for its call center employees. After implementing an alternative workplace strategy that included the option to work from home, they decided to conduct a trial program with employees from several different call centers.
All their calls were measured and monitored, just as they would have been if in a call center. This company found that, as a group, the home-based employees were as productive (using the same productivity key performance indicators) as the group sitting in the call centers. They actually saw increases in individual performance that exceeded what those same employees had been accomplishing within the call center environment.
If given the right tools and performance expectations, home-based employees can be just as effective as their office-based counterparts. Measuring accomplishments against clear productivity goals is a much better way of defining success than monitoring computer activity.
According to The Wall Street Journal article, as of last year close to 23 million corporate employees work from home at least one day a month. With such a massive network of ‘moving target employees,’ employers and employees need to get on the same page to navigate an ever-shifting landscape of how we work and maintain productivity.
The article focuses on how online monitoring software can enable employers to “keep a watchful eye” on staff productivity. The concept seems simple, but reading more into some of this software (and watching a “Big Brother-esque” promo video from one provider), I think this method is too invasive and not the best way to monitor productivity.
The article would have me believe that the best way to measure productivity is by keeping a virtual surveillance tape of what people have on their screens during the day. The issue with this approach is that in a world of multitasking and with the non-linear work flows and thought processes of knowledge workers, what is on an employee’s computer screen doesn’t necessarily equate to how efficient he or she is. It would be more beneficial to monitor the tools employees are using to do their jobs and then to analyze the results to continually offer the best tools.
Before considering use of monitoring software, employers need to develop a thoughtful work at home strategy with clear consensus as to how success will be measured. If you simply allow employees to work from home and the first thing they hear out the door is “oh, by the way, we’re watching everything you do,” this sends a message that the employer doesn’t trust their people. That is a bad way to launch and maintain a successful work at home program. I’m not saying this process should be a free-for-all because then, yes, people will take advantage of the system and slack off. But instead of relying on monitoring software, employers will see greater impact by establishing consistent lines of communication with their people.
I’m working with a client that is in the process of reevaluating their process for training call center employees and sending them home to work. Their current model trains people for two weeks and then has them work in the office environment for three months. Then they go home to work, primarily handling customer phone calls.
Our client monitors productivity in terms of quantity of calls handled and customer satisfaction surveys. This enables them to target any employees who seem to be falling behind in productivity. In such cases, the employee is brought back into the office for refresher training. The important thing here is they are monitoring the results, not every last thing employees are doing throughout the day.
The new model we are exploring with this client takes into consideration virtual collaboration tools and how they can enable deeper ties back to the “home office.” The new approach will also include more well-defined communication protocols and metrics for measuring success. People can be held accountable for their workload and output by maintaining consistent communication via virtual team meetings, strict deadlines and periodic performance reviews.
With the exception of extreme cases, there is no reason an employer should bother to spend time or resources to monitor every last thing their people are doing. When my car is running smoothly, I don’t waste time worrying about every last thing happening under the hood. That would distract me from getting from point A to point B.
And if my employer is keeping track, I checked Facebook three times while writing this.