So after months – or even years – of deliberation and back and forth with employees, you’ve decided to allow telework in your office. But where do you begin? Do you just let people start working from home on random days? How will everyone know what is expected of them? Are there guidelines that employees should follow? And how do you balance the needs of the office and ensure that the spirit of the telework program is understood and followed?
In a previous blog post, I discussed the importance of scheduled telework rather than allowing it sporadically. Today I’d like to revisit this topic and talk about key elements for implementing a telework policy in your office. As mentioned in my earlier post, if you allow telework on an “as needed” basis, the tendency is for those days to replace sick or vacation leave. Employees aren’t as comfortable or familiar with the practice of teleworking and their habits aren’t suited to performing at the same level at home as they do in the office. That’s why diving head-first into a formal telework arrangement with an actual agreement in place may be the right move for you.
Here are some suggestions to help make telework successful for your office.
Establish a Telework Agreement/Policy
A telework agreement sets the standard for who in your office can telework, how often they can do it, and whether or not there are restrictions or requirements in place for them to work remotely. Many telework agreements are of an “opt-in” nature, but they must still clearly detail when and how employees can participate, including the number of potential telework days per week or pay period and how those are to be scheduled. It’s important that the agreement be in writing and signed by all parties involved, including managers and employees (I’ll talk more about manager buy-in later in this post). In addition, the policy should detail employee expectations such as hours of availability while teleworking (e.g., “be available in your home office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.”) and detail any technological or administrative requirements to help them accomplish their tasks remotely.
One of the most important aspects of a telework agreement is that it provides a framework upon which everyone can rely and a schedule to ensure employees can communicate effectively and perform their duties regardless of their physical location. For instance, your firm’s telework agreement could state that all architects may telework on Mondays and Fridays. This provides a structure for planning so that if you need a face-to-face meeting with an architect, the meeting would best be scheduled on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. At the same time, any individual or highly focused work may best be accomplished on Mondays and Fridays. Of course, there are tools that allow for easy collaboration while teleworking, which I will touch upon later in this post.
In order to determine whether or not teleworking is right for you, you first need to implement it properly for a trial period of six months or more and then assess how it has impacted your employees and their work-life balance. I’ve worked on space transition projects that implemented telework agreements, and what we’ve seen is that with the proper support and framework, the majority of employees thrive if their telework agreement is properly tailored to their needs. Once you’ve implemented a telework agreement and let it run for a while, you can determine if it’s necessary to increase or decrease the level of telework in order to better meet the needs of your office and employees.
Make Sure Management is On Board
One of the biggest obstacles for telework that I’ve encountered is resistance to change, especially among those in management positions. I’ve seen management appear openly hostile towards the concept of teleworking, and the failures of sporadic telework were used (erroneously, in my opinion) to justify those beliefs.
A telework agreement can help with this because it can be established with your organizational needs in mind and can adjust over time to fit how your office best functions. If you implement an extremely light but regular telework agreement – maybe allowing one day of telework per two-week period – employees would only be working remotely 10% of the time but they would have the framework they need to be successful 100% of the time. This allows your employees to test the waters of teleworking with minimal disruption to their existing work habits, but you’re still going “all-in” by setting up the foundation for successful telework. In fact, what I have observed when minimal telework is encouraged and properly supported is that employees’ schedules are cleaner and more effective. Perhaps this is because they’re already set up for success for any unforeseen events that might impact a commute into the office, plus they are less stressed because they are avoiding at least some of the daily commute and unplanned interruptions that often happen in a traditional office.
Taking it a step further, the most successful mobile offices I have seen are those where managers not only encourage the idea of teleworking, but lead by example and set up their own schedule for teleworking as well.
Establishing the Foundation for Teleworkers to Succeed
Once the framework is in place, how is everyone going to get their work done while they’re at home? The first step for many offices is to provide laptops so that employees can take their work with them and be truly “mobile.” The ability to remotely log in to the company’s network or their work computer – whether from a laptop or desktop – is the critical factor.
The next step raises one of the primary reasons people give for not being able to telework, and that is simply: paper. Many people are wed to their paper files, and they do not (or perhaps cannot, for confidentiality or other practical reasons) transfer them from office to home. It is important to have the software and formats set up for accessing and working on all of the needed documents digitally. Another option is to transmit them digitally and print them remotely. Once paper files have been made available electronically, the number of people who say they cannot work remotely drops drastically.
Another important foundational element is the ability for employees to collaborate remotely. This involves finding the right software for video and phone calls, and hardware such as cellphones, webcams, and headsets. Hosting meetings or phone calls remotely can be a challenging transition, but with practice I’ve found meeting remotely to be as effective as meeting in person. Of course, face-to-face meetings can still be quite valuable and healthy for working relationships. In my company, we all work from home offices except for business travel and client meetings, but we still make time to meet in person as a company at least once a month.
With the above framework in place, employees will have the best foundation for successful telework and will be able to meet remotely if necessary, but they will also be able to plan ahead and prepare for in-person collaboration on the days they are in the office together.
Transitioning Space for a New Way of Working
A big part of implementing a telework agreement for your office is re-assessing how you work and what you really need to do your job. Employees can then adjust their schedules and personal work spaces to improve their work-life balance, while also maintaining or even increasing productivity. But does your physical office space support this transition? Your space today may not be designed to most effectively support a remote work force. If you implement a telework agreement, you may find that cubicles are often sitting empty because people are working from home. And when they do come into the office, they may spend their time in conference rooms or other collaborative space.
And that’s where one of the greatest potential benefits and opportunities of the telework arrangement comes in. You may be able to reconfigure and reduce space to save costs and to better meet the needs of your more mobile workforce. I would consider that a win-win.