We All Work from Home Now

laptom and glasses on a table. text reads "we all work from home now"

Like most people with an office job, which is most people working in digital, I’ve been working at home for year. At first I didn’t realise quite how long term this would be, and I definitely didn’t think it would be permanent – and it could be.

Late last year we were asked what our preferred work pattern would be, and I chose a “mostly work-from-home” pattern. My company has been very good about employees wanting to continue to work from home, but other companies are taking a different route.

Google is limiting its work at home option to 14 days a year, and wants everyone back in the office by September. Twitter is happy for people to work at home. Facebook is re-opening offices at lower capacity, with a plan to reach full capacity by about September. Barclay’s chief executive pointed out that it becomes harder to maintain collaboration and company culture if people are working from home. I hear people talk of being “zoomed out”, and it’s true that after a year of working from home and dealing with a lot of uncertainty we’re all tired.

I’ve been 100% work-from-home for more than a year, I had lunch with some colleagues last September but I haven’t had a face to face meeting with colleagues since 5 March 2020. It is, as the kids say, a bit extra. When I made the decision to be on a mostly work-from-home pattern I thought hard about what would work best.

  • Almost of my meetings are multi-location
  • I work with people with good digital skills
  • My direct colleagues and my boss are in three other countries so they don’t know where I am
  • I like to flex my work day to be available for calls to the US, so generally work to 7pm my time
  • No commute = more time for me
  • Location, I’m closer to good coffee when I work from home

The one downside, I’m isolated, I miss talking to colleagues face to face once in a while so I am looking forward to being together. And my real office is close to Schiphol, so extra convenient for emergency city breaks once we can have those again.

Lessons So Far

This has been a year of forced experimentation so what have we learnt?

Asynchronous for the Win

The in office meeting culture forces a certain structure to our day. But if you’re in an internationally distributed team (4 locations, 4 time zones) you learn to make that time difference work for you. My US colleagues now know that they can work on something to the end of their work day and hand it off to me to pick up while they’re asleep. We’ve got better at agreeing on a structure of a project, or a content outline, and working independently. We’ll email or message each other frequently, and come together only towards the end to workshop the final product.

This requires knowing your colleagues strengths and being able to trust them to do their work. It’s meant that in some teams I’ve been able to halve the time to launch. It allows us to focus on the work to be done, rather than fit the tasks into snatches of 20 minutes between meetings. It’s taken a lot of the urgency out of projects, and yet the work is getting done faster than before. Long may it last.

Meeting Skills Matter

I suspect that the “zoomed out” feeling is a consequence of poorly designed meetings, and a lot of it would go away if we had better meeting skills
– make your meetings shorter
– specify the purpose of the meeting in the invite
– enable people to decline if they judge they don’t need to be there
– if the meeting is more than ten people designate someone to manage questions via chat while the meeting leader or presenter continues. The idea that anyone can interrupt with a question at any time sounds great – but it can be really destructive on productivity when 29 people have to listen a question they didn’t have.

One concern I have about continuing to work from home when others don’t is that hybrid meetings when most people are in the room and just one or two are online will become unbalanced – something to watch for.

Work Patterns are Individual

I’ve been calling my work pattern “work from home”, but the reality is that it will become “work from anywhere”. I’m fully planning to take advantage of cafes as they open up to get a different view of the world – and coffee. I hear there is wi-fi at the beach these days.

The debate how “work from home” vs “work at office location” is a false dichotomy. I think we can be more flexible than that in many jobs. We should be talking about work patterns for individuals rather than a single rule for everyone. It takes more focus from managers, more planning for individual work, but it could be a great step to a happier, more inclusive workforce.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Work From Home

So working from home is no longer an option at Yahoo, what an uproar. The comments on twitter in the last few days following a leaked memo banning working from home at Yahoo were bitter.

But it turns out that Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, has made her decision based on data. The company’s VPN logs showed that people were simply not logging in for the time they were paid for. It is possible to be working offline, time which won’t show up in VPN logs, but it’s also possible to log in to the VPN and not work, so the login time is probably a fair approximation of time spent working.

There are modern theories about how work should be measured on output rather than time spent, which is a great theory, but tougher to measure fairly across a big organisation. I suspect it’s the lack of output which triggered Mayer to look into the log files in the first place

Flexible work schemes promise a lot of benefits;

  • it’s a cost saver for big companies, enabling them to reduce costs on desks, equipment and office space, particularly if combined with “Bring Your Own Device” programmes
  • for many employees the flexibility to work from home is a benefit, particularly those with long commutes or parents who adopt a “split shift” approach, working mornings when children are at school and at night when children are in bed
  • employee engagement goes up benefitting both employees and the company.
  • In the Netherlands the government sees flexible work schemes as a way to reduce road congestion.

And the downsides?

  • it’s harder to manage an employee you don’t see, you simply don’t get the same “face time”
  • it does not match certain types of office work; crisis communication, agile project management techniques rely on everyone being in the room together for example.
  • the potential freeloading problem, that seems to have been happening at Yahoo.

I like having the opportunity to work from home some of the time, I don’t use it very often, but it’s useful if I have a detailed report to write to have more “thinking time”, on a more pragmatic note it means I don’t need to take the day off to wait for the plumber or electrician.

But I wouldn’t do it full time – I like the social component of work, a lot of the most useful conversations with colleagues are short coffee meetings and it’s pretty hard to virtualise that.

I do manage people who regularly or occasionally work from home, and I’ve learnt that for it to work you need to have mutual trust between the manager and the team member. For flexible work programmes to be successful employees and managers need the right tools; laptops, phones, work tools, online collaboration tools.

But we also need new work skills, particularly for managers.

  • Clear setting of expectations for short and long term results
  • Open discussions about progress
  • Early addressing of performance issues
  • Attention to team performance, and building team collaboration tools
  • Create an environment people want to work in
  • Use of online tools to replace some of the face time you accidentally get in the office

Wait – these are all standard management skills apart from the last one. Perhaps we, as managers, just need to do do our jobs professionally. It shouldn’t take the CEO looking into VPN log files to address productivity problems.

image home office