Practical Work-From-Home Policies That Actually Work

The dust is beginning to settle around Marissa Mayer's infamous Yahoo lockdown. Now it's time to begin putting together a comprehensive strategy that works for your company.

Now that the dust has settled a bit about Marissa Meyer’s controversial “no working from home” policy at Yahoo, I thought I’d weigh in. Many companies provide work-from-home options. Employees love it.

But many managers struggle with it. They ask me about this all the time--How do you optimize motivation AND productivity?

There are two important thoughts here: First, individuals can be more productive working at home, but teams can’t. Teams are always LESS productive when people are not together. Second, productivity declines, more often than not, because management is unclear on expectations and measures--it’s not just that people at home are slacking off.

If you want your work-from-home policy to work, get very clear about both individual and team goals. Figure out what things the team must be together to work on, and what things will be optimized by individuals working from home. Establish clear desired outcomes, schedules, and priorities both for the individuals and the team.

Here are some ideas that work well for me:

1. What does the team need?
Have your team work together to define clear team goals. What things does the team need to work on together as a team? How often? What does the team need to learn? Plan and structure in-person meetings and office days around achieving those specific outcomes.

Team time is important for collaboration and idea generation. It’s important for problem solving and process improvements. Team time is also important to have discussions about what people are worried about, answer questions, and calm uncertainty.

2. Productivity comes from clearly defined outcomes.
If you define clear desired outcomes for content, schedule, and quality, and employees deliver, it should not matter where they do the work.

If you’ve given an individual clear direction on required outcomes and defined stretch goals, you never have to make a personal judgment about whether someone is working hard or slacking off. Clearly defined and measured results tell the whole story. But if you are vague on expectations, productivity will decline. You get what you measure.

3. Approve specific work-from-home days.
Designate specific work-at-home days of the week, for specific people, to optimize the right people being in the office together at the right times.

Require pre-approval for specific work-at-home days vs. people having the expectation that they can just send an email on any given day saying “I’m working at home today”.

4. Avoid making Fridays work-from-home days.
Here, I realize I am risking an unpopular point of view, but if you are a manager worried about general productivity, it can help to designate Friday as an in-the-office day. If people are getting the work done, you shouldn’t care if they stop early on Fridays. But if performance is suffering, you might want to consider treating Fridays as a team day. You can always separately offer to your top performers to go home early on a Friday.

Don’t confuse achieving business outcomes, with giving perks. Do each on purpose.

5. Consider Mondays as work-from-home days.
Monday can be a great day for people to take advantage of undistracted thinking and planning time away from the office.
If you have a staff phone call first thing on Monday mornings, you can kick off the week, and reiterate strategic priorities and specific expectations. Then people can get a less chaotic and more purposeful start to the week, instead of just getting swept into a stream of tactical activities.

6. Providing flexibility is a good thing.
One of the reasons people like working at home is that they feel in control and they feel trusted. That is good for productivity. I am a big believer in treating people like humans (not “resources”) and acknowledging that they have a life that matters outside of work.

If you give people schedule flexibility to deal with daily daycare drop-offs and pick-ups and school events, or allow them time away to care for sick family, in my experience they become much more motivated, loyal, and productive.

People will move mountains for you when you really need them to, if you respect them as people, and don’t force them to be in the office on a very specific, lock-down schedule when it doesn’t matter.

7. Is your team never in the same building to begin with?
You can’t let a lack of physical presence keep you from establishing team camaraderie, and building team performance. There are some specific ideas for you here.

But back to Yahoo. I would assume that Marissa Meyer, who has a big turn-around to execute, is advocating for more team time and clearer measures. A more specific, and individually targeted, work-from-home policy that supports both team productivity (in the office) and individual productivity (at home), with clear goals and measures for each, will most likely evolve at Yahoo over time.

--Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker, and business advisor to CEOs. You can find her at azzarellogroup.com or follow her on Twitter. Reprinted from azzarellogroup.com.

[Image: Flickr user Mike Lietz]

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10 Comments

  • Remote Nation

    Patty,

    This statement is certainly not 'always' true:

    "First, individuals can be more productive working at home, but teams can’t. Teams are always LESS productive when people are not together. "

    We have a team entirely made up of remote workers and it is the most productive team I have ever been apart of (having spent over 10 years in cubes and meeting rooms). Calls are quick and to the point, teammates speak up no differently than when face-to-face and we get things done. 

    I have found remote team work to be less distracting since there are less disruptions like watching people fiddle with phones, staring out the window or whispering to co-workers. 

    Basically, it boils down to hiring the right people--people you can truly trust. The better you are at hiring, the more successful any team will be, regardless of their physical location.

  • AllisonOKelly

    With the recent Yahoo and Best Buy news, the national discussion has been centered on the problems, rather than specific solutions and advice on implementing sustainable alternative work programs. This is unfortunate because there are so many benefits to this type of workplace when executed and managed correctly. My hope is that more leaders experienced in this arena will come forward and share their flexwork success stories and best practices. 

    I agree with you, Patty, in order for alternative work options to be successful, it is key to be clear on individual, team and company-wide goals. From a situational leadership perspective, your advice to delegate tasks based on what items will be best optimized by individuals working remotely, in-office employees, or teams, is wise. Thanks for sharing this practical advice. -Allison O'Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps

  • Simon King

    I do favor flexibility as a value - this can be work from home, flexible hours etc

    But I also suspect there are also scenarios that warrant in house work.Working with a a heavily virtual team, it feels as though I work in this model everyday.

    There are activities that lose value without a colo team. These range from
    - AGILE dev
    - Brainstorming
    - Interlocking value (eg sales team with acct mgr, sales engineer, services)
    - Fast moving / critical scenarios eg operations team handling outages
     

  • Andrei Hedstrom

    Hi Patty - nice blog.  I was recently on a pannel discussing this along with someone from google and a tech staffing company in North Carolina.  My company SweetRush is a virtual firm with folks all over the world collaborating with clients all over the world.  We have our own secrets to success http://www.sweetrush.com/who-w... but beyond these more tactical I list at the top Trust.  I think you did a great job of introducing this element.  Trust is our biggest asset both in how we deal with our clients but also in how we treat one another within our firm.

    Your focus on measurements is also very important - we find that where we have very clear criteria we actually perform better than when we were in an office together.  For internal projects there might be a little loss in productivity because it is easier to let back burner projects slip more, so we have been trying to get more rigorous about treating these as we would client projects.

    Thanks for your thoughtful article.

    Good Things,

    Andrei Hedstrom
    CEO
    SweetRush

  • Rick Presley

    Patty, I couldn't help but think this article is simply a statement of the obvious. I've been a "remote" worker since 2004 and my management had been coordinating remote staff for years before I signed on. It would seem there are certain skills that go with this that are only obvious to folks who've been at it for so long. I think you've cataloged them very well here and I applaud you for bringing some sanity to the discussion (in contrast to other articles I've read on FastCo).

  • Fred

    Item #7 (is your team never in the same building to begin with?)-- The specific ideas for adressing camaraderie and performance in the absence of physical presence you mention: there's no link to take me there. Could be a problem with my browser? Or did you not make the link "not"?

  • Paul H. Burton

    Patty: I couldn't agree more with your set of recommendations for work-at-home modeling. The simple fact is that when we blindly assume adults will be adults, enough of them won't and then we're back in the soup. It's just a different kind of soup.

    Working from home is not for everyone, every job or every temperament. Many of the most common sense realities get lost in this heat debate, such as: 
    1. Businesses exist to make money, period. They may do other things, but they don't exist if they don't make money.
    2. People perform jobs for businesses because they get paid. Take away the pay and the people won't show up. Therefore, there's a direct relationship between what someone actually does (beyond "show up") and what they get paid.
    3. If people want complete freedom over their schedule, they are free to start their own business. They will also then take on all the risk and work it takes to make that their reality. If they don't want to do that, then they can work for someone else who has and work within the construct that person (or group) establishes.

    If we keep some these simple, common sense, realities in  mind during this discussion about where/when people work, the outcomes will be more successful. 

  • Remote Nation

    This is classic old school thinking.

    If you hire people you trust, and provide them with clear objectives then they must perform regardless of their location.

    Do you really believe that just because somebody is sitting in a cubicle (or 'showing up') that this is simply enough motivation to perform good work? Be honest with yourself, if somebody is happier they will perform better.

    Put the onus on the employee to prove it works. Give them the same assignment, have them report progress and carry on. If they are not meeting deadlines and getting work done, then its a problem with the person not the location of their desk.

  • David Straker

    Policies cause problems when they are applied blindly. In trying to cope with this a common approach is to try to cater for all variations within the policy. But this is treating adults as children. Far better is a simple policy that allows for common-sense human decisions about exceptions, with constructive dialog and storying that supports a sensible culture for this.