Despite a few high-profile efforts to bring employees back to the office, the prevailing workplace trend is heading home. According to a Gallup survey, 43 percent of working Americans spent at least some of their time working remotely, an increase of 4 percent since 2012. More importantly, the survey found that “flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities play a major role in an employee’s decision to take or leave a job.” Creating a remote-friendly workplace is a great way to attract top talent, increase productivity and boost morale. And here is the best part, the cost to the company is not only free, it actually saves money.
The benefits for both the employer and the employee are clear. The employer enjoys:
- Increased Productivity
- Improved Retention
- Broader Talent pool
- Lower average employee cost
- Lower facilities cost
The employee enjoys:
- More freedom
- Better balance
- Less stress
- Lower expenses
- Pajama Fridays
Home-based employees are more productive, by at least 13% says a study by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com. Even better, allowing employees to work from home saves money for both the employer and employee. The same survey estimated employer savings at $11,000 per employee per year, and between $2000 and $7000 in for the employee. Costs related to facilities, commuting and onsite perks all go down, and you get the side benefit of lower greenhouse gas emissions by taking a few cars off the road.
Another study found that remote employees are happier. Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University professor, partnered with Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, to conduct research on telecommuting. Among other things, they found that the home-based employees were more satisfied with their jobs and far less likely to quit than their work-in-the-office counterparts.
The benefits are glaringly apparent, and yet many companies have failed to successfully implement remote work policies and processes that work. In the move to allow more flexibility for their workforce, companies need to accommodate the change to the boss-employee relationship. Managers need training to become effective virtual leaders.
I became a virtual leader in 2006. My team was not remote; I was. I joined a mid-sized tech company in Silicon Valley as their head of finance, working remotely from San Diego. Over the course of 10 years, my team grew from less than 10 people to more than 30. The team was spread across at least 8 locations as far-reaching as Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul. Despite the vast distribution of people across multiple locations, I had negligible turnover, tight teamwork across employees working in different cities and time zones and one of the most productive teams in the company.
Here is what I learned about virtual leadership:
1. TRUST but verify
Remote management begins with trusting your employees to get the job done without you looking over their shoulders. Start by hiring strong managers and individual contributors with a track record of working independently. Begin each project by establishing clear ownership of tasks, milestones, and deadlines. Once you assign the task, step back and allow the owner to do their job. Schedule a call with the project owner well before the project is due to review a draft of the deliverable. Let them know that you don’t care whether it is polished yet.
When a project is going sideways, fight the urge to insert yourself and do the project. Provide comments and edits in writing without making the edits yourself. Mark up the deliverable while allowing the employee to correct it. Use a scanner to send the marked-up document to the employee. Initially, the effort to provide corrections and allow your staff to make them will take more time. However, in the long run, your staff will learn and become more self-sufficient by having a clear feedback loop when they make errors.
2. Communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more
Virtual leadership requires more communication and “on call” availability. Begin each week by reviewing your deliverables with your team. Again, set clear expectations about projects, deadlines, and ownership. Hold brief team meetings that have a clear agenda, cadence, and frequency, where your team leaders talk more than you do. Ensure that your team members understand where others on the team have dependencies on them for information and/or execution.
3. Connect virtually, collaborate often
Instant messaging is your friend. Allow your team to instant message you, and only turn off instant messenger when you require full focus for meetings. Ensure that each office site has a strong, cohesive team and a local leader who is good at communicating. Leadership can come from any level. A strong individual contributor who is outgoing and social can build morale and establish a team culture. Pull the team together a few times a year to build relationships that go beyond work. Utilize video conferencing, chat software, instant messaging to provide a fluid, open communication flow. Consider setting up shared music sites, like Spotify, to bring the team together virtually.
My team set up group playlists on Spotify. On Fridays, we’d choose a theme, like “guilty pleasures,” and each person would load up the list with songs. We’d have a contest to see who could pick the best one. It brought the team together in a very subtle, yet hilarious way.
4. Recognize & Reward Teamwork
When you are the one working remotely, your employees may feel that you don’t “see” their efforts. It is important to reward top performers. Even the smallest gesture – a thank you from the CEO, or a $50 gift certificate – goes a long way. Encourage team members to aid others on the team that may be overloaded. Take time to acknowledge and reward those who go out of their way to help.
5. Set clear boundaries, as a manager
Allowing employees to work from home, where they want and when they want, is a privilege that is earned through performance and trust. Be wary of the signs that someone is not working when they say they are: deadlines are missed, meetings are skipped, the person is not reachable during work hours. Communicate with the offender by clarifying expectations. If they repeatedly take advantage, act swiftly by removing the privilege to work from home.
6. Set clear boundaries, as an employee
When your office is 5 feet from your bedroom, it is easy to work anytime, day or night. This might seem like a good thing, until you find yourself working all the time, day or night. The boundaries between work and home become blurred if you are not vigilant about separately the two. Turn off your computer. Make sure you have an office door that locks. Turn off your phone when you can. This is true as a manager and as a remote employee. Give your employees the freedom to do the same, and respect their personal time. Allowing people to work from home does not mean that you expect them to always be working.
7. Visit the office regularly
No matter your role, there are times when it is important that you show your face in the office. Make sure that the criteria for making the trek to the office is clear for yourself and your employees. Are there meetings that require you be in the room? Are there leaders that expect to meet with you face-to-face? Is there an event like a sales conference or all-hands meeting where being in the room provides opportunities for leadership exposure? Your employees should not have to guess when it is important to you that they be there in person. Again, clear communication is critical.
8. Understand that working remotely is not the best solution for everyone
Not everyone has the right personality, skills and focus to work effectively from someplace other than work. The employee has to make the effort to reach out, communicate, manage deadlines and work independently. The individual must be self-motivated and conscientious, and comfortable picking up the phone to talk to others regularly. If you discover that working from home is not working for you, know yourself and realize that you need to be in an office environment to be effective. Likewise, if you have employees that are not thriving in a remote setting, consider bringing them back to the office or finding a way to keep them motivated and focused.
Overall, creating a remote-friendly workplace is great way to offer a coveted employee perk with no additional cost to the company. Instead of promoting work-life balance, consider developing programs for work-life integration. Gone are the days when people strictly work 9 to 5. Does your employee have a doctor’s appointment? An appointment to get their car fixed? A sick child? Allowing the option to work from home, enables your employee to accommodate typical life responsibilities by integrating them into the workday and shifting their time to make both work and home a priority. By offering your employees flexibility to work from home, you build a sense of trust, while giving them more control, flexibility and freedom. Trust me, they will respond in kind with loyalty, commitment and gratitude.