Work from Home: But Do It Right!
by Lars Attmer
And suddenly, working from home has become a big issue. According to a Bitkom survey conducted between 11 and 15 March 2020, almost half of the surveyed workforce is currently working partly or entirely from home. For some companies and their managers, this is a new experience, but not one they have chosen of their own free will. What counts for them: better to have employees working under limited supervision than not at all. Still, some employees are themselves struggling with their own issues because their daily routine of leaving home for work has been disrupted. This is clear evidence that any company considering the possibility of providing to its employees the opportunity to work remotely without regard to their current location – be it from their homes or even from a vacation home in the mountains – must provide much more than just functioning technology.
A representative survey conducted by Bitkom in autumn 2019 came to astonishing conclusions. Four out of ten permanent employees (41 percent) already have the go-ahead to work from home, but 62 percent of them do not want to do so under “normal” circumstances. In contrast, 38 percent prefer to work within their own four walls or while on the go. The reasons are manifold as well as understandable – insofar as employers do not take appropriate steps to support this different way of working. Fifty-nine percent of respondents say they need the sense of working on a team. Almost as many (56 percent) would miss the personal interaction with colleagues in the office. And one in seven (15 percent) believes that he or she cannot work productively at home. Worries that always working from home will be detrimental to their careers and a disadvantage during salary negotiations also drive employees into the office.
Focus on people
Both managers and employees continue to be skeptical. Companies wanting to retain or introduce working from home as an alternative once the pandemic has subsided will be successful solely if they take a holistic approach that closely involves people in the processes, introduces modifications in the organization, and lays down new principles and regulations. “Flexible working requires clear rules; trust on the part of employers and a high degree of self-discipline on the part of employees are essential,” said Bitkom President Achim Berg, confirming the creed we preach to all companies that we have advised and guided along their journey to New Work. Simply declaring a top-down policy ordering work from home will mean failure of such projects in the long term and for the foreseeable future.
Let’s start with the managers. They often fear a loss of control when their teams are no longer physically present – and this is true at all levels of the hierarchy, from team leaders to C level. Do employees working from home really sit down at their desks on time? Do they do their jobs as conscientiously as in the office? Or do they spend a lot of their time making private phone calls and chatting? Such fears are typical of managers in companies still dominated by traditional viewpoints – physical presence is the only proof of good work performance. The work results themselves take a back seat. But is physical presence really an indicator of the quality of the work in everyday office life?
Trust is the number 1 success factor
When team members work at physically separate locations, mutual trust is the number one success factor. In 2017, Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom conducted an experiment at Ctrip, a listed travel agency with 16,000 employees, to determine the actual effects of working from home. Call center employees (who had volunteered to take part) were randomly assigned to work either from home or in the office over a period of nine months. The results: working from home led to a 13 percent improvement in performance, 9 percent of which was due to fewer breaks and sick days and 4 percent to more calls per minute. The employees working from home also confirmed an improvement in job satisfaction. Encouraged by the success of the experiment, Ctrip extended the option to work from home and allowed employees to choose between the home and the office workplace. More than half decided to work from home. The gains posted specifically by people working from home doubled to almost 22 percent.
Such positive results cannot be taken as a given. People working from home quickly feel isolated and disconnected from the flow of information, and this represents a major risk for the company. A recent survey among 2,000 field workers and 2,000 managers in the USA and the UK revealed that while almost 90 percent of employees feel they have a personal relationship with their immediate colleagues, fewer than 15 percent experience such a personal connection to headquarters and only 3 percent have the same sense about top management. Fewer than half of the employees report that they interact with senior team members, and more than half feel they have nothing to say.
More leadership needed
Such conclusions go to show that working on virtual teams from any location requires more rather than less leadership. Typical management tasks include social integration as well as qualification and motivation of the team members, the regular review and checks of the project status, and the coordination of work-sharing activities. So New Work requires clear structures and routines. Leadership oriented to results in the sense of “management by objectives” alongside the indispensable trust simplifies work enormously. In consequence, it is important to agree on clear and achievable objectives based on clear definitions of the input of each team member and the alignment of mutual expectations, thereby creating a management system that ensures transparent monitoring of success. Instead of playing the role of overseer, supervisors should take on the role of enablers.
Preventing feelings of isolation
Aloneness is one of the most common complaints about working from home because employees miss the informal social interaction of the office environment. As time goes by, isolation can cause any employee to feel less like a “part” of his or her organization and may even reinforce an intention to leave the company. In everyday office life, managers may stop by the individual employees’ workplaces or call everyone together to discuss the work status. This is lacking to some degree for virtual teams. Misunderstandings can easily arise if work instructions are not absolutely clear from the beginning. The differences in the situation mean it is necessary to define more clearly than usual the fundamental points from Day 1 for virtual teams: Who will do what, how, and by when? Otherwise, members will be quickly overwhelmed by utter telephony and coordination chaos.
Structured check-in and check-out on a daily basis are a help. This is where chat programs with emojis or Microsoft teams where every team member can define his or her current status – busy, available, in a conference, or please do not disturb – can be helpful. These small symbols of transparency are a good way to clear up misunderstandings and mistrust. Social interaction on non-work related topics is also important. This can happen at the beginning of the team calls and take the form of casual conversations about current events, vacation, or the weekend. Ordering a pizza for delivery to all team members at the time of the videoconference creates a virtual pizza party. Or there could be a “care package” for every team member, which everyone opens at the same time. Experience has demonstrated that such virtual events reduce the feeling of isolation and foster a sense of belonging.
Emotional intelligence in demand
Managers must be acutely aware of the need to acknowledge stress and to listen and act empathetically in response to employees’ fears and concerns that arise especially whenever there is an abrupt change to remote working such has been forced on everyone by the current crisis. Not everyone can or wants to talk about stress or anxiety, which is why managers should actively ask about people’s emotional states. Research on emotional intelligence shows that employees ask their supervisors for advice on reacting to sudden changes or crisis situations. When in doubt, it is better to communicate too much rather than too little. Misunderstandings should be cleared up by a phone call. Moreover, teams should also agree on rules such as how quickly members must respond to messages. Is it acceptable for someone not to be available at noon or to take a short walk in the afternoon, just as long as a task is completed – even if not until the evening?
Ultimately, however, working from home requires employees to assume responsibility. One manager sums it up succinctly: “The precise specification of the task, setting limits on scope and resources, and ensuring the enthusiasm of the employees are not problems. However, I prefer proactive people who themselves take charge and structure their work. The people who do not need close managerial management, who are committed to a project, and who are driven to achieve excellent results rather than by external factors. Such employees make valuable contributions by thinking long-term, being aware of risks, possessing the courage to question processes and habits, displaying initiative, having a sense of duty and responsibility, and being flexible. In my opinion, these are key performance indicators. Hard work, punctuality, and precision are no longer enough.”
Successful work as a team requires the establishment of a sustainable culture of trust and clear, transparent communication between managers and employees. When all employees collaborate closely, remote work can be just as successful as classic office work.
Factors ensuring the success of concepts for working from home:
- Establish a sustainable culture of trust
- Create clarity and transparency between managers and employees and among team members
- Allay employees’ fears and prevent a sense of aloneness
- Maintain and strengthen team spirit
- Enable micro-contacts with the entire team
- Define clear rules and general conditions for virtual collaboration
- Prepare virtual team meetings well and involve every participant by assigning tasks
- Do not continue videoconferences for periods longer than 45 minutes as participants’ concentration drops dramatically from this point
- Define clear rules for meetings and communication
- Incorporate mindfulness and physical exercises
- Ensure that all participants are attentive; actively address them, for example
- Document results and related tasks carefully