We spend a lot of time worrying about whether people who have always worked in an office can suddenly be successful when working remotely. Lately, I’ve been trying to flip that question around. Can people who’ve worked from home easily and happily go back to working in a traditional office environment?
This is not a hypothetical situation. Someone I know works for a big company that suffered damage to their facilities during the hurricanes last year. As a result, a large number of people began working from home. Now that the waters have receded and the office has been rebuilt, they are calling people back to their workplace. A lot of people are resisting. They find they want to keep working from home, at least part-time.
There are several reasons people cite for preferring to work from home. Some are obvious, and hard to argue with. The commute down the hall is a lot quicker and easier than driving in any city on the planet. It’s simpler and cheaper to fit your family needs such as day-care or minding an elderly parent into your routine. Those are personal reasons, but there are factors that impact the business as well. At the top of this list is “I can get more done at home than in the office.”
The balance of productivity and relationships
No matter where you work, it’s often the case that the biggest advantage is also your biggest barrier to success. For example, while people who work from home famously “get more done,” what gets done is often busy-work and tasks. We all have things that are best done uninterrupted and without the distractions that other people cause. There can be a downside, though. Work that depends on good working relationships, inputs and outputs to and from others, and true brainstorming often suffer when people aren’t in physical proximity to each other.
On the flip side, if people are constantly interrupted in their work, or spend so much time getting sucked into meetings that actual work has to be done on their own time (and there is a whole legal kettle of fish there that’s about to boil over), then hiding at home seems like an awfully good alternative.
Just like the office, or just like home?
Just as we’ve spent an awful lot of time and thought making the virtual workplace as much like “being there” as possible, we also need to spend some time improving the working conditions when people are all together.
Here are some of the most common complaints about working in a common location:
- Constant interruptions. Now that few people have real offices with real doors, it’s easy to “pop by” someone’s desk uninvited. Some of this is the dark side of one of the main advantages of working together: the serendipitous meeting. Positive socialization becomes “Drop what you’re doing, it’s Sharon’s birthday and there’s cake in the break room.”
- Too many (of the wrong) meetings. If one of the main advantages of getting together is to meet, brainstorm, share information and build relationships, it makes sense to leverage those things by meeting together. Unfortunately, we all are in too many meetings, and the amount of wasted time and energy is staggering. Companies need to get smarter about when they meet and when not to.
- Catching the bosses eye is a mixed blessing. Many people complain that when they work in the office they wind up having tasks delegated to them, not because they have the bandwidth, but because they are the first person the boss thinks of. That might give you an advantage when it comes to career advancement, it’s not much help in getting the Jackson report done on time.
The answer to many of these challenges is the same as it is when we’re trying to maximize our effectiveness when we’re not in the office. There need to be rules of etiquette, engagement and processes that are carefully though out and mutually agreed to, rather than either imposed or just left to form on their own.
When was the last time your team actually discussed (as opposed to complained in the break room) how to work together without interrupting each other’s work flow? Have you assessed your meetings and considered alternatives to getting everyone in the “Walden Room” for half a day?
As we say in The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership, it’s leadership first, location second. If we don’t examine the work that needs to be done and how best to accomplish it, we’ll continue to struggle with getting things done no matter where we are working.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.</em