Working from home: supporting your at-home workforce
I’ve been working from home since the early 90s; sporadically at first and then full time since 2004-ish. My first at-home computer was a Compaq 386 “luggable”, carted home for me from Wall Street on the LIRR by a colleague who parked at the same train station. It was about the size and weight of a portable sewing machine, and it was awarded to me by management so I could avoid motion sickness during chemotherapy. I quickly found that I had the personality and self-discipline to be productive while working from home. I’ve had consistent, long-term success with remote work. I’ve seen it similarly succeed in others, but fail for many.
Right now, working from home is necessary
The COVID-19 pandemic has now driven a mass-migration of staff out of the corporate office and into the home office. Many of these newly-remote workers have never worked from home before. In addition to general inexperience with the situation, there are several other factors at play that can produce undesired results.
For some, working from home is not natural
Working from home is not for everyone. It works best for those who are some combination of introvert and intrinsically motivated. There are some people for whom this model will never work well over a long haul. A few days here and there, sure. Weeks on end with no end in sight? Not so much. Many people are more social; they NEED interaction with their colleagues. Others don’t have the self-discipline necessary to git ‘er done. They NEED to be provided with the structure of routine, place, hierarchy, and physical presence to get a good performance out of them. Neither of these things is a shortcoming – it’s just recognition of what conditions will produce success in these people.
Personality and pressure
When working from home first became a thing, the company quickly discovered that some employees would “take advantage” of not being observed all day. I’m not talking about putting the conference call on mute long enough to throw in a load of laundry. I’m talking about indulging in hours-long activities that sap time and energy from workday performance. We saw moonlighting on company time, working from home in lieu of hiring child care (while schools and childcare facilities remain shut down, everyone gets a pass on this one), and drinking on the job.
Stress and despair produce different reactions in different people. While some of these things fall into the category of “taking advantage”, under today’s circumstances the drinking might indicate that this person is suffering – from isolation or fear or depression or some combination of all of these things.
Working from home successfully is management problem
I consider both the “taking advantage” and the reaction to stress a management issue. When you are managing an at-home/remote workforce, you must find ways to ensure that your team remains productive. You cannot just throw your people to the wolves without structure and oversight and expect all of them to succeed. Some of them will adapt easily, and the others need to be shown how.
There’s a whole management science for how to make this type of work arrangement succeed for both the company and the employee. Remote work training should be a routine part of a disaster preparedness plan for any business, big or small – for both employees and managers. The plan should include periodic practice drills to ensure that the technology works and that everyone is familiar with the prescribed disaster response, both in theory and in practice.
This is part of your job now.
Under normal circumstances, not everyone should work from home, and not everyone wants to. But these are unusual times. The luxury of choice is not with us at the moment. For all we know, this is the new normal for a long time to come. It is up to management to watch out for signs that it’s not working. Be prepared to step in with help, support, coaching, training – whatever it takes to lead your people toward success. This is part of your job now.