Working from home (Co-authored by Mahnaz Shaikh)
As most of you know, I usually try to work a couple of days from home every month. I have found that this is a great way to carve out some time to think through our longer term objectives.
Telecommuting or flexible work options have been around in workplaces (especially the US) for a couple of decades now. There is a growing body of research that suggests that some amount of working from home has a strong positive impact on engagement and productivity. This is therefore now encouraging organisations outside the US as well to experiment with such options. Add to that the fact that evolving technology offers multiple options to stay in touch and work remotely, and you have an enabling ecosystem as well to support this trend.
We introduced flexible work options at Godrej a few years ago. While a few people do use them, they are yet to be really explored by others. Generally, working from home seems to be something you turn to in an emergency like when your caretaker doesn’t turn up and you need to stay home with your daughter. But that isn’t really the only purpose. Done in the right manner, working from home can be much more that.
I am very pleased that Mahnaz Shaikh has written this week’s message on the philosophy behind flexible work from home options and how you can leverage them more effectively. Mahnaz, as you know, leads HR for our India and SAARC businesses. She also heads Diversity and Inclusion for Godrej Industries and Associate Companies.
Please read on…
As an individual, I have come to realise that flexibility is one of my most important drivers at work. Like with other aspects of my life, this too has evolved based on different factors, like my stage of life (when I became a mother), the nature of my role (depending on how much people interface it required) and work location (whether work was near or far from where I lived). I am sure this would sound familiar to many of you too.
I have been using Work From Home options for the last seven years. I have done so across multiple roles which have required a lot of face to face interaction as well as others where my team was spread across different countries. I am laying this out upfront, because I am hoping that answers some basic questions. Yes, you can do this over the longer term. And yes, you can do this, irrespective of the where your other team members are located. Also, in my role as an HR professional, I have watched and aided many people working from home over the years.
Many organisations today offer flexible work options, but they also struggle to reconcile the spirit of the policy with how it gets used. As you know, there are several (pre-conceived) notions about working from home – many of which have become urban legends of sorts. I, like several others, have grappled with them at different points. While there is no one answer, I am going to attempt to respond to some of them listed below. I also firmly believe that as individuals, we need to take the responsibility to address some of these myths and show how we can effectively work around them.
So, here are some of my perspectives on what you can do to set up an effective system to work from home, while countering some common concerns:
Myth #1 – Work From Home means No Work
Work From Home, as the name indicates, means you do have to work, even if it is from home :). It is not a substitute for Sick Leave. Nor is it meant for urgent personal work. It is important that both you and the organisation see it as such. You should be clear on what this means for you personally as well. The way I see it, this option offers me the flexibility to manage my life around work on those days. For example, it could mean picking my son up from school.
Then comes the part on the work front. If you ask me, I personally feel more productive when I work from home. So, I am probably getting more work done that I would have otherwise. I save on travel time and face less distractions like unannounced walk-ins and chats. I have heard several of my colleagues say the same. And there is a growing pool of research that validates this. It shows that not only do people who work from home get more work done, but they are also much more engaged and easier to retain. If nothing else, you should give it a try for this reason, whether as an individual or a manager!
Myth #2 – Work From Home means No Structure
It is important to build in some structure when working from home. This is both in terms of the environment you create for yourself, as well as the expectations that you set. In terms of the environment, I have a dedicated work space – very simply, a table and chair with my files and books.
On the expectations front, I usually have a designated Work From Home day (for example, Wednesday), which is aligned with my team and other stakeholders. This way, they are aware of my plans and can also plan their requirements from me, accordingly. As I’ve learned, being clear about how you want people to stay connected with you while you are at home is also helpful. Give your team clear, actionable guidelines – like counting you in on a call for that discussion which is planned.
On a separate note, setting expectations with my seven year old son has been a journey. Over the years, he has come to understand the boundaries of when I can spend time with him and is happy to have me around, even if I am working. Having these conversations are important, so that everyone involved understands your priorities and approach.
Myth #3 – Work From Home means No Meetings
I have always found technology to be a powerful enabler. And given how things are evolving, we have so many options to choose from. You can easily find a technology solution today which can simulate a face to face interaction rather closely. Think about how you use FaceTime to stay in touch with your family or friends. It’s pretty much the same here. I always request to do video calls, even if the person on the other side is still trying to figure out the video feature on their laptop. Sure, there’s a chance that the people you are working with may be hesitant to try this out. If that’s so, then you should take the lead. Send across the details of the platform, how to log in etc a couple of days ahead. If necessary, walk them through a demonstration of it. You’ll be surprised as to how opinions can change once you help break this trial barrier.
Also, figure out what format works best for you. On my planned Work From Home days, I schedule meetings with a maximum of three people. This is because I have found that efficiency usually decreases if I am connected remotely to a meeting where five or more people are together in person in a room. If all the members are virtually connected, however, you can host an effective meeting with as many as ten people or more. Applications like Webex are great for this.
Like with any other pitch you would make to your manager, you need to talk this out. Often, people shy away from this because they aren’t sure how it will be received. Don’t do that. Have an open conversation, explain your stand and how you plan to approach working from home. Proactively address some of the myths I have mentioned above. Understand your manager’s apprehensions, if any, and co-create solutions. Experiment with your approach for a couple of months, see how it goes and then have a conversation to understand if you need to work around any issues. You are much better off co-opting your manager as an ally to make this work for both of you.
As managers and leaders, we have a responsibility to enable and encourage our team members to use Work From Home options more effectively. Know that people are watching you closely and taking their cues from you. How you act and react to our policies and processes is read by many as the organisation’s viewpoint on it. If your organisation is committing to flexible work policies, then you have to start respecting and enabling them.
So, if you have ever said or heard these things said, stop for a moment and consider the implications. Even if you meant it in jest, it doesn’t always go down that way.
“Why are you working from home; just take leave.”
“So you are working from home tomorrow, are you also planning to watch a movie?”
“Let’s cancel our meeting tomorrow if you’re working from home. I don’t think Skype is effective.”
Here are some suggestions for you to think through:
1. What’s the real problem?
If you’re not comfortable with your team working from home, ask yourself why. If you don’t think it is effective, what’s the reason for it? Is it that you don’t trust your team to actually be working from home? Is it that you think their roles require them to be physically present in the office all the time? Is it that you don’t have the technology platforms to enable people to stay in touch effectively while not being physically present? They all have different solutions. If you can narrow down on the real issue, then it’s much easier to directly solve for it.
This whole approach is based on trust. You have to trust that your team will use this in the right spirit. And they have to trust that you and the organisation will make the paradigm shift to believing that performance is not equal to mere presence in the office. That you will start focusing more on the output and trust our team members to be able to deliver on that, while allowing them the flexibility to choose how to go about it. Allowing and more than that, encouraging this flexibility, can significantly motivate your team.
3. It isn’t for everyone
Sure, there may be people on your team for whom working from home would not be effective simply given the nature of their work (like daily supervision on the shop floor), or even their own individual work style (some people don’t like the concept of working from home). So there isn’t a need to force fit this. However, there would certainly be other members for whom this flexibility could end up being an important driver of both performance and engagement. And it’s important that they don’t miss out on the opportunity.
4. Make the offer
You’re never going to know if people want to work from home, unless you ask them. Have you tried talking to them about the policy and asking if they would like to use it? A proactive stand could be very encouraging. It also helps debunk some of the myths around it.
5. Don’t be passive aggressive
The most damage you could do, is by being passive aggressive. I have unfortunately seen some managers do this and it becomes very difficult for team members. They don’t want to say no outright, so they find other more indirect ways that will result in them not working from home. Reactions could for example, involve piling the person with so much work that requires them to be around the office, that they simply can’t work from home. That completely defeats the purpose and only results in distrust and disengagement.
Many thanks to Mahnaz for sharing her perspectives. I think these are very useful tips on how we can start leveraging the option to work from home more effectively.
While we are pleased to be able to offer different flexible work options to our team members, these will remain only policy documents unless we truly adopt them in spirit and practice. As leaders we play a particularly important role in enabling these polices. Whether or not you actually role model and use them and how you encourage your team members to try them out will make all the difference. So, please think hard about your approach to this. It would also be very helpful to hear about your experiences and what we can do better to tap into the many benefits that policies like these can offer to our team members. Do write in and share your thoughts.
As always, I look forward to hearing from you.