By Lisa Dishman, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
When pondering the option to work from home, or telecommute, ditching the drive to and from the office, the need to invest in a work wardrobe and the requirement to sit in an office or cubical all day sounds pretty appealing to many employees. Employers too are often compelled by the savings that can accrue to the bottom line when they relinquish brick and mortar offices and the attendant expenses when their employees work from home. According to Global Workplace Analytics, the economic advantages are real. A typical business saves $11,000 per year per employee and the telecommuter saves between $2000 and $7000 per year.1
In addition to the economic benefits for both employers and employees, there appear to be other benefits as well including productivity, efficiency, higher morale, less stress and greater employee engagement to name a few.2
The Census Bureau data analyzed by Global Workplace Analytics indicates that telecommuting is growing quickly. The data indicates that the number of teleworkers — full-time employees who work primarily from home — more than doubled from 2005 to 2014, to about 3.7 million. An increase in telecommuting was one of the top workplace trends cited by the Society of Human Resource Management’s 2016 Employment Law and Legislation Conference3, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 23% of all U.S. employees did some of their work remotely.4
While telecommuting has clear economic and quality of work-life benefits for many workers and employers, and increasingly employers are implementing telecommuting for all or part of an employees work week, remote work presents challenges to both employers and employees. In order to make the most of this increasingly popular arrangement, employers should encourage and employees should consider implementing the following suggestions:
Create a dedicated, distraction free, professional work area. Working from home can increase productivity - no loud co-workers or water cooler gossip to deal with, nor will you have the distraction of colleagues stopping by for an impromptu chat or meeting. Telecommuting does however, introduce a number of new distractions – other family members, housework, pets and yes, even the lure of the refrigerator or television. Working from home is a transition for the entire household and can require ongoing negotiation with other family members. Your mere presence can be very tempting for family members and setting some physical boundaries, if at all possible, is an excellent idea. Creating a workspace with a desk, a comfortable chair, computer, etc. that is off limits to family and other distractions, at least during certain hours of the day, helps reinforce that boundary. While you may not have the ability to devote an entire room to remote work, you can devote a corner of your bedroom or even reconfigure a closet. There are many tips available to help employees think through how to create a welcoming, comfortable space.
It may be tempting to work from your sofa (or even your bed), but long-term, it’s not good for your posture or for your ability to truly focus on your work. Taking a break to work from a coffee shop can be a nice change of pace, but spending large chunks of time working in public places could also reduce your productivity. Having a dedicated work space within the home also allows employees to walk away, to shut down and disconnect more effectively, which helps to keep work and home lives from constantly bleeding into one another and affecting the quality of both.
Create a schedule. Some work from home arrangements allow employees to have a great deal of flexibility. Others, due to the nature of the work, require that employees keep strict office hours. Strict office hours automatically impose a discipline on telecommuters and give structure to those employees’ work day. If you have flexibility, you will likely need to create some form of schedule for yourself and perhaps share that schedule with others who depend on your presence at your desk or availability.
Even employees with a great deal of flexibility perform better with chunks of time devoted to work5 balanced with time dedicated to their needs or the needs of their family. If these times aren’t at least somewhat clearly defined, employees may run the risk of feeling as though they work all the time or conversely, they may find that personal obligations begin to impinge on work commitments and their performance may be negatively affected. Scheduling blocks of time clearly dedicated to work will help to prevent some of the constantly overlapping elements of work and life that can leave employees and employers alike frustrated. This “blocking” of schedules also means that putting your lunch time walk or an afternoon break to weed your garden for thirty minutes on your calendar is important. Those breaks can boost energy and creativity6 and are what makes working from home not only productive, but enjoyable.
Boost and expand your communication and connection skills. While the benefits of working at home include stretches of quiet time that allow you to focus, some employees find working from home isolating and some can feel disconnected from the larger work group. Certainly not having co-workers around can create communication challenges – interpreting the tone of an instant message (“IM”), like email before it, can be tricky. The range of tools that are available now, including IM, texting, Skype and video conferencing, allow employees to stay connected in both formal and informal ways – virtually and face to face.
Communicating through IM, text, or even email isn’t the same as face to face contact, but it can allow you to be even more thoughtful and deliberate about what you say which can save time when the actual, face to face (even virtual face to face) meeting takes place. Lastly, when opportunities to interact with co-workers in more traditional ways do occur, take full advantage. Staff meeting coming up via Skype? Be prepared, give a full but succinct update on your portion of the project under discussion, have any questions or clarifications you need from team members at the ready and have your schedule handy so that co-workers understand your bandwidth to take on new or additional commitments.
Working from home is the wave of the future for many employers and employees alike. While the benefits for both parties are clear, there are downsides to this trend. Employees can take a few simple steps to be certain that the benefits of working from home are fully realized.