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Working From Home Can Be A Productive Perk, But It's Best Done With Some Rules

By Christopher Steiner  •  Jul 13, 2017

Most offices, whether at a big company or at a startup, allow employees to work at home from time to time. It's not exactly a perk, but it does allow people to better manage work and their lives, as neither of those things  adhere to perfect forms of time or place. 

Some studies, including one carried out by Nicholas Bloom at Stanford, suggest that letting employees work from home is not only a sellable benefit when recruiting, but it also leads to higher productivity for most people. Others, citing their own data, disagree, countering that time in the office is the time that's most productive.

The real answer, as with many things, isn't a nice declarative little package. It depends on the person, the nature of their job, and the way in which they're managed, among other things. Whatever the case, giving employees the option to work from home occasionally is a practice that has gained momentum within most parts of the service economy, and is an accepted part of many companies' cultures. 

The practice of granting employees offers companies a good number of other benefits that have been well-defined in other studies and examinations around the web. Among those things:

• Helps retain valuable employees who require flexibility in their workdays
• Helps attract talent - as company can recruit from larger geographic area
• Good for morale, developing trust
• Can help maintain productivity on days when events disrupt commutes or services at office
• Lets companies use fewer resources at the office: space, utilities, food, etc.

To be clear, this piece deals with working from home (WFH) for a day or two at a time, something we consider different than working mostly remotely, which requires a different set of policies and expectations. This is about employees who are most often at the office, but on some occasions may work from their dining room table.

Perhaps as important as anything, people given the option to work outside the office a few days a month are happier in their jobs, according to a Gallup study. The study noted, however, that these positive findings only hold true if people work from home an average of one day per week or less.

On the whole, allowing work from home offers most companies and startups positive outcomes, but it's a policy that's best used with constraints and standards. We've drawn from our own experiences as founders, as well as getting feedback from other founders, to put together some guidelines on how to best put together a work from home program. 

Have a clearly defined policy, and ensure that all employees, new and old, understand it

As with any policy that lacks clear controls and definitions, a WFH policy that's hazily defined will often be twisted and exploited. Most companies don't want team members texting a manager at 9am to let her know that, "Oh, by the way, I'll be working from home today." Treating work from home as an always-available free option can snarl meeting schedules and other creative processes at the office. 

It's usually wise to set limits on the time any employee can work from home: once a week, or twice a month, or whatever works best for the team. In conjunction with that, there will likely be days when all employees are expected to be at the office, whether it's for a weekly sprint meeting or a conference call with major clients. 

To ensure that there's no confusion on this front, employees should be expected to log their WFH days ahead of time in a scheduler or calendar. To make that even easier, there are Slackbots and similar tools that sync between communications tools and popular calendars that make keeping track of peoples' whereabouts simple.

Clearly defined policies, of course, are written down and easy to find for all team members, so be sure to document your policy instead of simply passing it around verbally. 

Make some days eligible for WFH, others not

Going beyond making single days when there are meetings or team events off-limits for WFH, it can be helpful to make some days of the week permanently eligible for WFH and others mandated office days.

Suvas Vajracharya, the CEO of Lightning Bolt, a San Francisco startup that makes physician shift scheduling software, practices a policy where employees can work from outside of the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but have to be in the office on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 

"This keeps the entire team in sync so that it doesn’t become difficult to arrange face-to-face meetings, which is important for establishing relationships and keeping our culture strong," says Vajracharya.

Lightning Bolt tracks who and how many people work from home and when, which allows Vajracharya to make a judgment if the policy is too generous or if it's having any effect—good or bad—on productivity or morale. 

Team members working at home should be just as responsive, if not more so, than employees in the office

This is part of expectations that must be set ahead of time within the company. Working from home cannot be allowed to morph into an exercise where it's possible to slack off, and to not be engaged with the rest of the team for much of the day. Team members who are working from home must be available on all the normal channels that they monitor when at the office: email, Slack, phone, etc. 

In fact, it's a good practice to set expectations that employees be even more available when working from home than when in the office. When this has been set as the standard, then other good habits, such as being productive and staying on point, will follow. 

Jobs with clear throughputs and metrics might offer more opportunity for WFH

These would be jobs such as those in customer service that involve tasks like calls taken or tickets handled, where measuring the effectiveness of a WFH plan with any given employee can be straightforward.

For these positions, it might be possible to allow more work from home time, if the at-home time any given employee is as productive or more productive as comparable time in the office. It may even be that, for some employees, time at home is more productive, which would corroborate the findings of the Stanford study. 

Nagging questions about a particular person's WFH throughput need to be addressed one-on-one

How employees leverage a WFH policy will affect its status and how its implemented in the future, but one employee who is abusing it shouldn't necessarily trigger a change in the policy for all team members. A manager or founder needs to sit down and talk with the team member and spell out the concerns. 

It's often the case that somebody who is unproductive at home or abusing the benefit of a WFH policy is also not an overperformer in the office, so a discussion on this front may have more serious consequences, as it's not good for morale to set different constraints on different employees. And it's just as harmful to disallow a privilege to other team members just because of the bad practices of one. 

"If it is ever a question that someone is abusing such privileges, you probably don’t want them on your team," points out Adam Feber, marketing director at Chargify, which helps companies manage billing for subscription-based products.

Make team members reliant and answerable to each other, rather than simply to managers

We heard from more than one founder who stressed that employees, when working from home, will do so more diligently when they're delivering something that their peers are counting on, instead of just handing work up to their direct manager.

"When team members know they're being relied upon to get something done for a peer, rather than a manager, I've found there's far less friction in keeping things moving forward," says Elliot Schrock, the founder of Thryv, a mobile development company. 

Echoing that is Derrick Morton, the CEO of FlowPlay, a game development company. 

Instead of developing strict rules around productivity and output levels during WFH days or at the end of an agile cycle, the culture at FlowPlay is built in such a way that employees are much more accountable to each other than their manager. 

"This has fostered an environment of creativity and solutions-driven collaboration even in the most technical of positions because each individual employee is truly invested in product innovation and the growth of the company, as opposed to the fear-based culture that is built when managers keep a watchful eye on employee productivity while working from home," says Morton.

Use video-conferencing when possible

It's fairly common for people to skip using video capabilities when in an online chat, whether it's through Skype or Google or something else. But using video can make people feel more connected to the group, says Steve Kokinos, the co-founder of Fuze, which makes communications and collaboration tools for teams.

Fuze's data show that when one person turns on video, the others in a group usually follow suit. With that fact in hand, Kokinos recommends that managers turn on their video at the start of the meeting so that the rest of the team will engage via video as well. 

No need to put bounds on what the 'home' is in WFH

Working from home needn't always mean exactly that. For jobs that require quiet and special equipment, such as customer service, then working from places other than home may not be a good fit. But for engineers and others who may need to simply grind on a project, employees should be able to determine where they're most productive. That could be a coffee shop, a park or a library. 

Steve Kokinos launched a 'Work From Anywhere Policy' at Fuze, recognizing this exact thing. "We have employees who do their best project work away from the office and not necessarily from a home office," he says. 

The policy has worked well for Fuze, Kokinos says, as 70% of Fuze employees work outside the office one day per week.

Pick the right technologies

Giving team members the right tools, the team's choice of tools, with which to communicate will lead them to do more of exactly that. This will engender more productive time outside of the office. 

Simpler is better, recommends Antoinette Forth, the CEO of Walkabout Collaborative, a management consultancy. Rather than pick the software with the most capabilities, or the enterprise standard in some cases, it's more helpful to pick software that is easy to use, works with all quality of Wi-Fi, can be used on any device and simply allows people to talk via text chat and video.

Those capabilities are all a team needs. Google's free suite fits the bill well.