It Shouldn’t Take a Virus to Let Employees Work from Home

The coronavirus outbreak could give rise to what Bloomberg News has dubbed “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment.”

Of course, remote work has been a trending concept for years—and the benefits are diverse. It allows employers to hire geographically distributed talent, lower overhead costs and offer an attractive employee benefit that costs them nothing. What’s more, working from home reduces stress and distractions, and can thus boost productivity.

In 2016, several US federal agencies had to find out the hard way that remote work, in fact, works: When they called their remote workers back into the office—claiming a lack of evidence proving the effectiveness of remote work—the results were sobering: an uptick in the frequency of sick leave and vacation requests, no increases in productivity and plummeting employee morale. When looking at Gallup data, this comes as no surprise: In a report, Gallup presents strong evidence that remote work options increase not just productivity but also worker engagement—which in turn translates into even more productivity. Offering remote work options is also a powerful antidote against talent loss: 51 percent of employees polled by Gallup said they would leave their current job for one offering flextime.

Having more people work remotely also comes with benefits for the environment. In countries where most employees drive to work, having more of them stay home will have a positive impact on air pollution. By eating at home, furthermore, home-office workers will likely be using less paper and plastic.

And just think of the way reducing the need for people to commute can alleviate traffic congestion in inner cities, as well as pressure on overburdened public transport systems.

Challenges and Best Practices

But working from home also comes with its challenges. For some, being physically isolated from other coworkers can be too much to bear. Others feel under pressure to be responsive 24/7, which can take a toll on their private lives and mental well-being.

In The Remote Leader’s Guide to Managing a Team, Matthew Barby, a London-based executive at HubSpot, shares some of his best practices managing teams spread across continents and time zones. He emphasizes the need to establish “guardrails” that set the parameters for a stable online work environment. Some rules remote teams may want to put in place include: agreeing on at least two hours per day where all team members are working and available for meetings and scheduling and adhering to recurring meetings, such as weekly team meetings and one-on-ones with direct reports.

To prevent “flexible” work hours from translating into never-ending workdays for his employees, Barby suggests leaders share their personal calendars. By showing time blocked out for personal commitments and leisure, managers can give employees a more realistic picture of their availability and work practices—and promote more healthy work habits among remote team members in return.

Ars Technica is something of a remote work pioneer. The company has operated as an all-digital newsroom from its inception 20 years ago. In an informative post, the website’s senior technology editor Lee Hutchinson shares how his employer has turned remote teamwork into a success story. Particularly useful is his description of how remote team members use online technology to enable efficient workflows. For example, Ars staffers maintain an Internet Relay Chat on Slack, where coworkers check in to say “hi” first thing in the morning. This helps employees feel like they are in an office work environment—even if they are physically sitting in their bedrooms.

Flexible work models vary, and there seems to be a sweet spot for achieving the right balance between remote and office-based work. Gallup found this sweet spot to be a 60-40 percent to 80-20 percent ratio. In fact, employees working from home three to four days a week and spending the remaining one or two days in the office report the highest rates of engagement.

The coronavirus may force many to work from home against their will. But for some companies and employees, this involuntary experiment may prompt them to consider new work models once the pandemic is contained.

Sara Kuepfer

This post originally appeared on getAbstract.com.

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