For many people and organizations, the concerns around COVID-19 have brought about a new reality: working from home. Working from home is not a new concept, and most modern companies allow and even encourage it at times. What is different this time is that companies that do not normally have a work-from-home culture are being forced to adopt one.
A key element of the hiring process for Learn on Demand Systems is a deep discussion on what it is like to work from home for an extended period. It is a different mindset than working from an office. Employees have to act differently. Managers have to manage differently. It’s not uncommon for a great prospect to turn down an offer once they fully consider the ramifications of a long-term work-from-home role.
Over the last 18 years, we have built a company of almost 90 employees using an exclusively work-from-home model. I’m sharing some of the lessons we’ve learned and the best practices for both the employee and the manager with the hope that those new to this style of work can take one or many of these practices and use them to streamline the transition out of the office.
Tips for Employees
These first three tips focus on the mental shift from an office to a home office.
Manage your personal expectations
Working from home is still work. Look around you. When you worked in your office, did the dishes and laundry get done during the day? If they did not, then they still will not. One of the biggest mistakes is that home office workers blend the home and the office. When you are at work, regardless of physical location, be at work both physically and mentally. Sure, it’s OK to tidy up the kitchen on lunch break, but not when you are supposed to be in meetings. Establishing a hard and fast rule that work time is for work will go a long way to building trust with your manager and peers, improving your focus, and letting you decompress at the end of the day.
Set your hours
When you remove the commute to the office, the immediate tendency is to start work perhaps a bit early or stay a bit late. Avoid it. Mirror the normal office work hours as much as possible. Work hours are for work. It’s especially important to establish this rule with kids, family, spouses and friends. During work hours, you are off limits. If you are in the other room, they should phone you. Simulate the separation of home and work as much as possible.
Establish your space
A home office cannot be a desk in your kitchen where you keep the grocery list. Regardless of the actual location, it has to be a dedicated space, free of personal clutter and distractions. If you do not have a space such as a guest room, a garage or a study that can be a dedicated home office, you may need to get creative. Hang some extra curtains, install a new door, or quickly reorganize a garage or shed. You need to find a space that can be physically isolated from the home, comfortable and free from distractions.
The next two tips relate to the trust that must exist between managers and work-from-home employees.
Change your communication
When you work from home, you are isolated from your peers and your managers. You, as the employee, have to take it upon yourself to ensure that you establish the trust that you are a contributing member of your team. This generally involves being more proactive in your communication. Don’t wait to be asked if you completed a task or met a milestone. Don’t assume that someone knows you are working hard on a project but hit a roadblock. Volunteer that information in a proactive and informative way. In other words, brag a bit.
Focus on results
As a manager, it is very easy to go to the “dark side” of assuming that someone you do not see or hear from for hours, or days, is “slacking off” and taking advantage of a work-from-home situation by treating it as a mini-vacation, or that they are not at all focused on work. It is up to the employee to take the lead in preventing this by focusing on meeting milestones. At Learn on Demand Systems, we focus on many mini-milestones in projects. Since we don’t see each other on a day-to-day basis, these mini-milestones represent more frequent points of contact between our employees and our managers and help maintain that sense of progress, which in turn helps build and maintain trust.
Finally, let’s look at two things you can do to stay mentally and physically healthy.
Fake your commute
Going to the office mentally shifts you from being at home to being at work, and back again. Your commute is the biggest factor in this. Set aside 30 minutes at the start and end of your day (less or more if you like), and designate that time as your virtual commute. Go for a walk, listen to a podcast, drive out and get a coffee—whatever makes sense. This short period of time is vital to help you make the mental transition from home to work and back.
Manage your health
Talk to anyone who works from home on a regular basis, and they will tell you the contact they meet with most often every day is the fridge. When working at home and needing to take a break, you wind up in the kitchen or pantry and, pretty soon, unhealthy eating takes over. There are simple things you can do to avoid the snack trap. You will always snack on what is easiest to put your hands on, so keep some healthy snacks prepared and ready to grab. Drink plenty of water. Go for a 10-minute walk. Force yourself to get up, get air, move around and avoid junk. It will go a long way to helping you feel good.
Tips for Managers
First, if you are a manager who is working from home and managing a team that is working from home, be a good example of the work-from-home lifestyle. Read the tips above, implement them, and be open about what works and does not work with your team.
Let’s begin with some tips on creating an effective work-from-home manager-to-employee relationship.
Trust your staff
Do not automatically assume that your employees will use working from home to take advantage of you. Employees who are dedicated and hard-working are dedicated and hard-working, regardless of where they happen to be sitting. Begin with a mindset of trust. They are working hard, and there is no reason to automatically think they aren’t or won’t. Use your instincts. Likewise, understand that everyone has a very different home environment. The employee who is super productive in the office, who arrives early and stays late, might do that because they have a poor home life. The employee who struggles with the social pressures of the office might blossom and shine working from home. Have an open and honest conversation with each employee to understand their unique situation, and be prepared to make adjustments to your expectations. 100% at the office might not be 100% at home; it might be more, or it might be less. The more you understand, the more you will trust.
Support the home office infrastructure
Be prepared to spend money. Most people don’t have a good home office. Be prepared to allocate money for things like upgrades to Internet speeds, desks, chairs, extra monitors, even laptops and other equipment. You would not bring someone to an office, provide them with a kitchen table and a wooden chair and expect them to be productive. You should not expect this at home either. At Learn on Demand Systems we provide every employee with a monthly home office stipend, and if there are any special medical needs, we take care of it. As a work-from-home company, we have the luxury of screening potential new hires to ensure they have a separate room dedicated as a home office. You may not, so you have to be prepared to invest money in your staff.
Immediately switch your calls to video calls. Make it mandatory. Do not waiver. Video calls will force your staff to consider their appearance and the appearance and setup of their home office. The result will be a more professional environment, less “working in PJs” and fewer distractions. You will also know who is focused and who is not. It’s easy to take a conference call on mute while washing the dishes. It’s very hard to do that when video is required. The end result is you will have employees who are more “at work” when they are at home, which will increase engagement and productivity and help build that all too fragile trust that is the cornerstone of a good work-from-home culture.
These next two tips relate to communications and, more importantly, simulating office communications.
Create accidental collisions
Literally, you run into someone in a hallway, a conversation ensues. “What are you working on?” “Oh, did you know about … ?” Those conversations do not happen unless you create an environment that fosters them. Focus on creating opportunities for employees to interact without an agenda. Hold daily open office hours in which everyone participates in a video conference, but does their own work. Let natural conversations flow. Establish informal chat groups or channels with products such as Slack or Microsoft Teams (which is free now). As the manager, actively encourage and participate in these channels with the goal of having employees get used to openly asking questions and volunteering information.
In many cases, the instinct for companies that are new to a work-from-home culture is to fill the trust gap with meetings. If employees are in meetings, they are working, right? At Learn on Demand Systems, we take the opposite approach. Meetings are scheduled interruptions to be avoided. Consider the notion of accidental collisions as described above. Without the accidental collisions that occur naturally in an office, meetings are often created for no other reason than to force people to interact. Instead of meetings, encourage open conversations on open chat forums that include everyone. Create spontaneous conference calls at the moment they are needed. Directly phone a person to get an answer to a question, just as you might “pop your head in their office” or ask them in the break room. These practices are counter to what many managers will instinctively gravitate toward, but they have a very real downstream effect. Employees who are less bound by a meeting schedule, are more likely to be video-called by a peer or manager at any time, and are open and active in chat groups, channels, and forums are more engaged, more productive, and more “at work.”
Finally, the next two tips focus on how you can help maintain trust.
We have a rule at Learn on Demand Systems: During normal working hours, while you may not be at your desk, you are still “in the office,” so if we call you, you answer. No exceptions. Refer to the previous guidance around meetings and consider how the simple fact that you know you can reach your employee at any time will do wonders for maintaining trust. On the other side, the fact that you may get a call at any time keeps you engaged and aware, regardless of what you might be doing or where you physically might be.
Make the new “work-life balance” OK
This last thought is not something we promote at Learn on Demand Systems since we are a work-from-home-only organization, but it’s something to be considered if a work-from-home scenario has been forced on you. In Seattle right now, many parents are being forced to work from home while kids are attending school from home. This is an entirely new dynamic. How can a parent who is suddenly without their primary form of childcare put in a full eight-hour day while in the same home as their child? The key to maintaining the productivity of that employee is to simply understand their scenario, whether it’s this one or one of several others that may play out, and make reasonable accommodations. Adjustments in work hours, changes in communication protocols, and just some good conversations about the challenges they face can go a long way.
I don’t have science or data to back this trend, but we find that there is about a three-month adjustment period for our new staff, especially those who are new to the work-from-home lifestyle. It takes about three months to fully convert to work from home. The first month is fun and exciting. During the second month, you settle in and find your routine. And in the third month, you discover that either you love it and can’t understand how you ever worked any other way, or you hate it and quit.
One can only hope the current push for work from home does not come to the three-month mark, but if it does and you implement the suggestions I’ve outlined, it can turn out to be a great thing.