Many people who telework do so only when they need to be home for a personal reason, such as a FedEx delivery or a sick child. The initial reaction managers and coworkers alike may have is skepticism. They’re thinking, with an eye roll, “Today sure won’t be Steve’s most productive day.” The sentiment is a valid one – do employees really have the proper structure and support network to work effectively from home? And how can Steve crank out his 2nd quarter data report if he’s caring for his sick child?Occasional teleworking can certainly be very convenient and can be done successfully. But the teleworking arrangement many employees have is not optimal. A super-productive telework day may be the exception rather than the rule. There are many ways to improve teleworking productivity, but I believe that encouraging a regular, pre-approved telework schedule is actually the best way to effectively incorporate teleworking into any organization.
My professional career started in a traditional office that allowed the occasional telework day. I then started working for an entirely mobile company where every employee works from a home office five days a week. For the past year, this has morphed just a bit for me as I’ve been working on a project that requires me to be at the client site one day per week in an open, highly collaborative office space. So, in my relatively short career, I have experienced many different flavors of telework!
Telework as “Sick Days” v. Business as Usual
My first experience with teleworking was somewhat negative. I worked in a traditional office (although it was set up to encourage collaboration) with a VPN option for employees that absolutely had to telework. At the time, I didn’t have kids, so telework for me usually meant I was feeling under the weather or needed to stay close to home for an appointment. As a matter of fact, a telework day was generally seen as a replacement for taking a sick or vacation day. The common excuses included “I’m not feeling well, but I can work from home!” and “My kids are sick and staying home from school, but I’ll VPN in so I can work today.” Unsurprisingly, very little work was accomplished on these days.
While every employee has the personal responsibility to get their work done in any environment, I believe that the telework support system – or lack thereof - was failing them… and even encouraging the misuse of telework days. And if the telework is infrequent and/or irregular, the level of productivity may be difficult to measure.
When I was hired by my current employer, I was required to set up a dedicated home office. This was a huge revelation for me and taught me a lot about how teleworking from home should be approached.
The Importance of Scheduled Telework
The key distinction I see – apart from the fact that my full-time home office setup is way more conducive to telework – is that there is predictability in my current situation. It is important to have a predictable telework schedule to ensure that teleworking is successful. Consider these factors:
1. Forming positive habits improves performance
Employees value the separation of their home and work lives, so working from home on an irregular basis can feel like going against the current of their lives. When we train young children to become successful at a new skill, we encourage them to set time aside to practice, and to stick to a routine. The same can be true for adults when adjusting to a new work situation. Set time aside for work at home, and stick to a routine. Invest the time and effort into setting up a space in your home that is conducive to work.
The more you practice these habits, the more effective you will become at completing your daily work outside of a standard office setting. And the better you will become at keeping your home and work lives separate.
2. More efficient for planning ahead/scheduling
As I mentioned above, I’ve been working at the client site one day per week for the past year. To make this most effective, I commute in to the office on Thursdays unless there is a reason during a particular week to go in on a different day. This regularity allows my team members to schedule and prioritize meetings with me when they know I will be in the office. While we handle most matters via e-mail or phone anyway, sometimes a more detailed, in-person discussion is needed. Being on-site on Thursdays means we don’t have to force it by e-mail or phone - we simply wait for my regular day in the office.
3. Separation of focus and collaborative time
If I have a task that will require me to spend several days “heads down”, I schedule that work for Monday through Wednesday at home so I am free on Thursdays to focus on more collaborative work in the office. This way, I’m not trying to crank out work that requires intense concentration when co-workers are sitting at adjacent workstations eager to coordinate on other projects.
4. More efficient use of office space
Scheduled telework allows organizations to plan for space needs in the office, especially in an open office design where spaces can be reserved or telework schedules can be set up according to how many employees will be in the office each day. Making the transition to an open office also greatly reduces the amount of office space and overhead required to support a mobile work force.
Making the Switch to Scheduled Telework
It may seem like a big change to switch from “as needed” telework to scheduled telework, but I assure you that there is almost certainly a schedule that will be beneficial to you and your employees. The first step is to gather data on how often your employees are already teleworking, how much they would value the option to telework more, and what needs to be done to make their work environment more conducive to teleworking.
If an employee is working from home irregularly, but on average two days per month, it may be helpful to structure those telework days as “every other Wednesday.” This may feel restrictive at first, but it will enable both you and the employee to plan more effectively. Plus, it doesn’t have to be set in stone – the schedule can be adjusted as needed.
Switching to scheduled telework may seem daunting and even unnecessary. But I encourage you to give it a try, and provide the proper setup and support. I think you’ll find it leads to an overall increase in employee productivity and greatly improves the work-life balance of everyone in your office.