Employers, let your people work from home

Work from home (WFH) is, astoundingly, still not the norm in United States IT offices. This is ludicrous, because:

  • Employees want it
  • Employers already provide it
  • The objections to work from home do not hold up
Work from home with a dog
IT work: better with a dog

Edit: *Sigh*. People. People people people. “Work from home” does not mean “100% full time work from home and never in the office”. It can range from “emergency” WFH, to part time WFH, to full time. Companies should offer these options.

Employees want work from home

“Gallup consistently has found that flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities play a major role in an employee’s decision to take or leave a job…” – New York Times, Feb 2017

People want to work from home. The most consistent complaint I have among my data and programming colleagues is that their job does not allow WFH. The most often-asked questions I get from the same group is, “How do I get a job with work from home?” The answer right now is, basically,  “Good freaking luck.”

Do all IT professionals want to work from home? No, not all of them. And even the ones that want WFH care to do so full time. I know a handful of professionals who don’t want to work from home at all…but even those people admit that they want the flexibility to work from home on days when their kids are sick, the car has a flat, or workers are coming, rather than having to take time off of work.

Everybody – EVERYBODY, I say – wants at least the option of work from home.

What’s more, quite a lot of people will run to another job with the alacrity of a golden retriever after a tennis ball, the moment they see it. Check this out:

  • 24% of employees surveyed say their company offers part-time WFH.
  • 12% said their company offers full-time WFH.
  • More than 35% of employees would change jobs to work from home, even part time!

(Source: Gallup “State of the American Workplace Report 2017”.)

Let’s say that again.

More than 35% of employees would change jobs to work from home, EVEN PART TIME!

Everybody wants the option of work from home. If you offer it, you become the cool employer that people are very hesitant to leave.

Work from home on the couch
Look how hard he’s concentrating! On work!

Employers already provide work from home

Companies with technology departments – that is to say, nearly all of them – already have work from home. You know how I know? Because if a server goes down on the weekend or evening, I can dial in and fix it! And it’s been that way for the last 10+ years. (Ask me how I know.)

You already have work from home, but right now it’s only allowed when it benefits the company, and not the worker. A DBA can work from home on evenings and weekends, because it’s faster to dial in to an emergency than to drive all the way in. But somehow, WFH evaporates when the clock strikes 9am.

How much better off are companies that are WFH-positive? Think about it: Employees have kids that get sick. Houses with bad plumbing systems. Commutes that get snowed on or iced over (yes, even here in Texas).  Would you rather have your project suddenly on hold because Dean has to stay home Tuesday for the roofing company, or would you like Dean to sit down at his kitchen table and bang out the reports while people bang on his roof?

Pick the “kitchen table” option.

Companies with single parent employees, and employees with health issues, will especially benefit from a WFH policy.  A kid with the flu won’t mean a delayed migration; an IBS flare-up won’t halt the security audit.

Those employees are happier, too. If there’s no WFH option, there’s that worry that all the “extra” time off – as compared to healthier, childless, or two-parent-family employees – will be counted against the worker at review time. Again, ask me how I know.

(I feel compelled to add: employees who are too sick to work really should just call in sick, though. WFH doesn’t replace sick days.)

“For employers telecommuting can limit absences, increase productivity, and save money.” – Monster.com, Working From Home can Benefit Employers as much as Employees

Work from coffee shop
I’m writing this article in a coffee shop. WFH, WFCoffeeShop…

Objections to work from home fall apart

“I like to see people in the office,” also known as “How do I know they’re working if I can’t see them?”

Most employers stake the bulk of objections here. A boss wants to know whether you’re working or not.  The thing is, the boss almost never actually sees their people working.  You can see people type, you can see people click. But who’s to say what the techie was doing?  Were they working on something for the company, or responding to something on Twitter, or Reddit?  Maybe they’re updating their resume!

It all depends on the company goal:

  • Is it to make sure people are working like you want them to? Then I suppose you might have a valid argument, but we should really talk about your management style…
  • Is the goal to get the work done? Then you’ll know if they’re working pretty easily, because the work will get done.

It’s that simple.  If the work is getting done, then what do you care where it gets done, or even when?

Break: Story time!

I used to work with a programmer who hated coding during the day.  He got so little done, because of all the interruptions. He just couldn’t think properly during the day.

So we started letting him keep his own hours.  He worked in the middle of the night and we couldn’t reach him the first half of the day because he was sleeping, but his productivity went through the roof.  Nobody was bothering him and he was able to follow a complete thought for longer than a couple minutes.

Moral: Get over the notion that you have to be able to reach all your people the second it crosses your mind.  Give them the space they need to do their job right.  And if they’re not doing the job, then restrict their work from home! Or, you know, replace them with someone who will do the work.

“Some people need close management.”

Some people do need close management! You can closely manage those people in the office, or via Skype or email (or the message system of your choice). Stop pretending that stopping by someone’s cube is the only way to manage them.  Make them accountable.  If they’re not meeting their deadlines, keep them on track. Have your normal review process. Someone who underperforms out of the office should be treated just like someone who underperforms in the office.

I used to work on a project where everyone was remote. We lived on Skype.  I collaborated with two other DBAs online daily, and it worked great.  We got the job done, and it was better than being in the office, because we didn’t have to all huddle around a desk.

So, unless your management style relies on having to touch your employees constantly (and I feel compelled to tell you that this style will get you into trouble), then this isn’t a valid argument.

“It’s not fair to other workers who literally can’t WFH.”

Let’s get this out of the way first: Lots of things aren’t fair.  Can you make sure that the person who saves the company $1mil gets a bonus, instead of their VP? Can you give the janitor a salary closer to the senior DBA’s? Can you make good on training promises when the budget dries up? No, you can’t. So “fairness” can’t be the only measure for this decision.

Different jobs have different requirements. Sales people are required to travel, but I don’t get to travel on the company dime. That’s a necessity, and it’s not my job, so it’s fair. The art department gets to sleep all night, while I have to stay up with a downed server. It’s not their job to get up and fix the emergency, so that’s fair. The surgeons at the hospital I work for get to go to a seminar on the newest laser technologies; I get to go to a conference on the newest high availability technologies; the warehouse workers don’t get any conference. That’s fair. (I do hope the warehouse guys get a cookout or something cool, though.)

Everybody does not get the exact same benefits, because each job has its own circumstances. I happen to have a job that supports me being able to work remotely.  So do a lot of sales people, and so do a lot of executives.

Everything is a trade-off.  Every job has its perks and its downsides.  WFH just happens to be a perk of being on call and working the extra hours.

“But I don’t want to work from home.” (From an employee.)

So, don’t! Full-time or even regular work from home isn’t for everyone, and shouldn’t be mandatory if there’s an office to go to. Workers who don’t want WFH should come into the office (where they can be distracted by coworkers instead laundry).

The point isn’t that everyone should work from home; it’s that everyone should have the option to!

“It also worked better when employees were given the freedom to decide when they wanted to WFH…” – Huffington Post, New Study Decodes When Working From Home Is Actually Productive

Conclusion and references

You almost certainly already have work from home for your IT folk. You  just need to allow – no, encourage – work from home for your people who want it. Easy tips:

  • Start with 2-3 days a week and see how it goes.
  • Keep in touch with your people; check in on email or Skype as needed.
  • Keep your eye on work done, not number of hours I’ve seen Employee X. Are projects moving forward? Things getting done? Then it’s working.
  • Encourage work from home for “I must be home” days – that’s, sick kid days, car trouble days, bad weather days, and so on.

Who else supports work from home? Like, pretty much everyone. Articles on Forbes (“Top 10 Benefits of Working From Home“), Harvard Business Review (“To Raise Productivity, Let More Employees Work from Home“), Entrepreneuer (“20 Reasons to Let Your Employees Work From Home“), and many more expound the good of flexible work arrangements. A simple web search will turn up hundreds more articles on the topic.

And then there’s me. I’ve been an independent consultant and business owner for years now, and by far the biggest benefit is still the ability to work in my home office. If I ever return to work a full time DBA position, you can bet I’ll hold out for a shop that has full-time work from home.

It’s not that hard. Let your people work from home.

Want more? See the follow up, “Employees, encourage work from home“.

 


 

Bonus: A rant on productivity

One of the biggest problems we have is all the time that’s wasted in the office.  People come by to pull you into useless meetings, to tell you about what their kid did yesterday, about how stupid this other guy was they just had to deal with, or even just to hang out.

I’ve always found the office a horrible place to get anything done.

I used to have a boss to insisted that, and I quote, “All work in the US is done between 9 and 5, and it has to be done in an office!” That’s where work is done, and that’s final.  So, no work from home (unless it’s after hours and it suits the company’s needs).

One thing people like this don’t realize is that they have a door that can be closed.  Coders and data people – in other words, regular employees and contractors – don’t have that luxury.  What we have is an open workspace, so we can interrupt each other’s thoughts and waste time with stuff that has nothing to do with my current project…er, I mean, openly share ideas and move the company forward in an organic and inviting manner.  Yeah. But back to the story.

But even with his door closed, the “”work is done between 9 and 5” manager was still getting interrupted quite a lot. One day he got a really important project, and he declared he was going to finish out the week at home so he could get something done, because he was being interrupted too much in the office!

When I reminded him that he had a door, he said that people just knock and come right in anyway.  When I reminded him that we work from 9 to 5 in this country “in an office” and that this was a great opportunity for him to show us how it’s done, he told me to shut up.  Then he went home and we didn’t see him for the rest of the week.

See? His bosses weren’t sitting there watching him work either.  They just cared that the project was getting done.

/rant

 

This article was co authored by Jen McCown and Sean McCown, and we mean every damn word of it.

27 thoughts on “Employers, let your people work from home”

  1. Hi Guys,

    Great post, too bad so many managers live in the 1980s.

    I used to work from home when I worked for MS in St. Louis. Everyone would come in every 3 weeks or so to work in the morning, then go grab lunch together, then go home to work the rest of the day. I noticed that not only was I more productive, but that I frequently worked more hours because I was never watching the clock. I worked until I came to a good place to stop or everything had been accomplished on my task list that day.

    There is work from home where I’m at now but “only when it benefits the company.”

    Thomas

      1. Some people probably think WFH doesn’t mesh well with “Agile”, specifically things like the standup, and pairing, and open work environments that let people pull you into doing their work for them (else you get labeled as a “blocker” in someone else’s status the next day). These are all dubious points of course, ones that are just newer versions of the “they must not be working if I can’t see them” argument.

  2. My previous employer was horrific about this. The biggest part of the argument was always “If I can’t offer this benefit for all employees, I’m offering it for none of my employees.” Yet, as you so rightly point out, I was on call and expected to connect remotely and work at 3am and on weekends (and both on occasion). Further, show up at 9AM the next day, regardless of how much sleep I had, because, 9AM, workday.

    Story time:
    On a Sunday we had a big problem with backups. I spent all night fixing the issue, no sleep, and then, to get to work on time, skipped the shower, hopped in the truck and drove to work. Not thinking, I was wearing jeans (HUGE BAD THING). As I’m sitting there nodding off at my keyboard, my boss’ boss comes up and starts haranguing me about the jeans. I turn to them, bleary eyed and launch into a rant about their policies. I couldn’t have gotten three sentences in before my boss intercepted me, dragged me off (still ranting) and sent me home. Policy was changed within a week. If you work all night, stay home and get some sleep.

    1. I’ve been there. It’s ludicrous! “Well *I* slept all night and am fine, so YOU should be here at 9am too.”

      It’s the “run till I’m tired” mentality, I guess. Thus, THIS rant.

  3. Just one thought. If you do NOT want to work from home, but your coworkers DO, then you are f*cked. You will not be able to communicate with them face-to-face, even if you are in the office.

    1. Lukaswo: It’s up to you to set that. WFH takes a small level of maturity, because you don’t have an authority figure telling you when to start work, stop work, sit down stand up fight-fight fight.

      You don’t have to work from home 24/7. I am full time WFH, and for me particularly, I start work at 9am and stop at 6pm sharp – with breaks for lunch and picking up the kids. That’s what works for me.

      But maybe full time WFH wouldn’t work for you. Maybe you prefer working in the office. **So work in the office!!** Or WFH part time, or only when it suits you (like, when the plumbers are coming). I’m not saying everyone should work from home, or should be required. I’m saying that all employers should ALLOW work from home, and not put a stigma on it.

      It works very well for some people!

      1. I mean, I have no problem with WFH. I DO like WFH. But if you work in a team and you do NOT want to WFH but others or some members DO, then it’ll changes your daily routine too. And maybe you can’t do anything about it.
        I just wrote this comment, to be sure, people are aware of that. If you work alone, not in a team or others don’t care, then why not? :)

        1. David: I’m of the opinion that all the advantages far, far outweigh the adjustments one has to make in office.

          We can be sensitive to the fact that there’s change, sure. But it’s most definitely not a reason to forbid WFH.

      2. You don’t understand. He doesn’t want to WFH and he doesn’t . But others on his team do and this is the problem. He can’t contact them.

        To all people WFH and saying how productive this is. Yes it is. If you don’t have to contact other people to finish the job. Then it takes multiple times longer to discuss then if you were all in the office.

        And BTW 9-6PM. When do you live if you’re spending entire day working? 7-3PM or 8-4PM this is what we do in Europe. Get some life! 😉

        1. “…If you don’t have to contact other people to finish the job. Then it takes multiple times longer to discuss then if you were all in the office.”
          It depends entirely on the office. I’ve been in offices where I couldn’t get hold of some people for days, because they were constantly in meetings and at other peoples’ desks. And we’ve worked with fully dispersed teams where there was never any problems getting hold of someone within a reasonable timeframe.

          I stand by what I said. There are adjustments to be made when a company newly allows WFH. The benefits far, far outweigh those adjustments. Companies should offer work from home, if only on a part time basis.

          This argument seems to be, in effect, that people (either team members, or the speaker) are too set in their ways to handle work from home. I don’t suppose I can argue anyone out of that position; “You’re used to doing this and refuse to change? Well, okay. But you’re missing out big time.”

          “And BTW 9-6PM. When do you live if you’re spending entire day working? 7-3PM or 8-4PM this is what we do in Europe. Get some life! 😉”

          Dude. This is an entire other conversation, and I agree that US workers work FAR too much. But you’ll notice that my day has a break for lunch AND another break to go pick up the kids. And I’m an entrepreneur…I run my own company! I’m doing pretty well.

        2. This sounds like a job for a manager….. Let me change into my outfit…..

          Have you tried talking to the other person or people, and asking them what the best method of contacting them is? What are their regular work hours? How much time do they need to acknowledge your request? Treat it like an SLA; for priority issues, call this number. Otherwise, email me, and I’ll get back to you within the hour.

          If you’re hunting people down to get work done and they’re not willing to work with you on a reasonable schedule, then make sure your boss knows that. And if you’re not on the same team with others, make sure that their manager knows it. You don’t have to frame it like you’re getting back at the other person; just frame it as a conversation:

          “In order to finish this project on time, I need help from Jane, but I’m having trouble reaching her on a consistent basis. What’s the best way for me to reach her when needed?”

          Statements like this smell like Spring-Loaded Butt syndrome:

          “To all people WFH and saying how productive this is. Yes it is. If you don’t have to contact other people to finish the job. Then it takes multiple times longer to discuss then if you were all in the office.”

    2. Dávid: I don’t find it much of an issue not to have face to face contact, but I understand people do. Perhaps you’d all just need an adjustment period where folks get used to calling each other on Skype (or their tool of choice?).

      If you still find that an issue, then ask the boss to have one or two in-office day per week, or have regular meetings on skype. I’m not saying “Every single office should have all full time WFH, all the time”. I’m saying that offices can find a way to make it work, and there are huge benefits for everyone.

  4. Jen,

    Great article! The issue that I’ve see at a few places has been regarding ‘bad apples’ that put a bad taste in management’s mouth. By that I mean those individuals that say they are working from home, but are actually caring for an infant (let’s be honest… you cannot work while taking care of an infant). Once they are older that’s a different discussion. Or they employee isn’t even at home working.

    In order for a WFH policy to be effective is that there needs to be an actual WFH policy. This should be a policy with a clear message of what is expected of an employee while working from home.

    Personally, I don’t like to work from home but it sure is nice to have that option.

    1. Word! I think people tend to forget that:
      – If an employee isn’t working at the office, you should improve/discipline/fire them.
      – If an employee isn’t working at home, you should improve/discipline/fire them.

      Instead, it’s:
      – Employee isn’t working at the office, so improve/discipline/fire them.
      – Employee isn’t working at home, WORK FROM HOME IS BANNED FOREVER IT DOESN’T WORK.

  5. For me, the best option is to have an office with a door I can close. At that point, I get work done, and can concentrate, but do not have to suffer through the interruptions. Headsets do not work as well as a closed door.

    That said, I’ve worked from home off and on over my entire career, even so far back as the late ’90’s.

    I worked from home for 3 whole years (went in for a meeting every couple weeks) even when I lived within a 10 minute drive from the office! Finding managers who understand that WFH has huge payoffs is the trick – demonstrating that you’re more effective that way is what I had to do with that one.

    I think the problem is that, for programmers, nobody really knows what a sensible amount of work is. Thus, the managers don’t know how to measure, so they measure attendance rather than productivity. It’s a fall-back because they just don’t know what we do. This problem also leads to massive overtime, of course, and I’ve found it’s something that goes hand-in-hand: if they don’t understand what a reasonable amount of work is, they micromanage the hell out of you and also demand that you finish the unreasonable amount of work they’ve assigned.

  6. I’m now on my 13th year working from home. Ever so often I meet an elderly person who is frazzled by the concept, but it’s pretty norm now. My co-workers in remote offices and around the world think nothing of it.

  7. My company allows working from home when necessary but not full-time (not even half-time, unless you have a particular reason). Because it’s a software house, the terms of working from home are project-dependent, but are usually possible with full transparency from the client’s perspective (he doesn’t know that someone from the team is working remote that day).

    It’s extremely comfortable and useful. I, for example, travel ~45km to work, so whenever I have a doctor’s appointment or something during the day, I need to be remote to handle it. My company doesn’t have a problem with that and it’s extremely useful.

    Working remote a day or two when necessary doesn’t have any impact on productivity or communication, but I feel that working remotely full time or most of the time would have a negative impact – not attending that morning coffee with co-workers cuts you out from some internal news and some innocent gossip, which strengthens relations among the team.

    As far as I’m concerned, working remote is great, as long as it’s no more than ~20% of the time.

  8. Agreed 100%.

    My preference as a manager was a combination of both. Despite advances in tech with Skype, etc, I’ve always found that face to face is far more productive for certain meetings. BUT, especially for tech types, that’s a small part of the time and being able to WFH for the rest was often a performance boost.

    I too had a manager who told me that work was 9-5, despite my team being on-call 24×7 and fighting DC traffic. Since he was located in NYC, I basically ignored that edict. :-)

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