A Golden Opportunity to Change the Employment Landscape
There’s nothing like a viral pandemic to bring about real social change. We’re all looking for silver linings in the COVID-19 outbreak – for me the biggest one is the potential it has to dramatically impact the work-from-home policies of employers. Just two months ago I wrote a blog about the need for immediate solutions to the horrific commute times that millions of workers face each day, and the negative impact commuting has on hiring the best people, as well as on overall production. If you believe that necessity is the Mother of Invention then we now have a golden opportunity to prove that work-from-home policies are not only a viable option but maybe even an improvement to the status quo of office-based work requirements.
Office- based workers have been clamoring for years to be given more flexibility for home-based work arrangements. While most of their counterparts in factory, manufacturing, and laboratory functions are generally required to be physically onsite to perform their functions, most office-based employees are tethered to a desk and a computer, which theoretically can be placed anywhere with a decent internet connection. The arguments for requiring onsite attendance have typically focused on meetings, training and supervisory oversight. Video-conferencing alternatives have vastly improved the ability to make decision in group meetings, as well as to deliver training content, not unlike online courses. While businesses will continue to rely on “hallway” meetings and other impromptu conversations to build support for decisions, the costs associated with requiring people to be physically present for such events has become exorbitant. We can influence each other with one-on-one dialogue in other ways.
So what about the issue of employee oversight?
If during this period of required work-from-home arrangements employees can demonstrate that they can perform at a high level of productivity then formal policies allowing such arrangements on a permanent basis may begin to take hold. We can now show that without constant distractions from unproductive activities like unnecessary meetings and co-worker chit chat employees may actually exceed expectations and deliver better results than before. This assumes, of course, that we are willing to limit distractions and have personal discipline at home. Also, the multiple hours spent staring through a windshield each day on the commute can be replaced with far more productive work-related alternatives. With more freedom comes greater responsibility and accountability.
We must become more sensitive to the need to communicate regularly with management, and seek out opportunities to provide updates on activities, accomplishments, and problems that need to be solved. An interoffice Instant Messenger application can offset much of the communication problems associated with lost hallway conversations. And, if necessary, we must defend our home offices from “intrusions” by setting new family rules about interruptions. Working from home can be extremely difficult for many people, not just due to unexpected distractions but also because of the general orientation we have to separate home life from work life. I know a home-office based worker who gets dressed in business casual attire each morning, drives to a nearby Starbucks for coffee, goes back home and quarantines himself in his office with predetermined breaks to emerge for lunch or other appointments that absolutely require his presence. In this way he simulates a regular office environment and finds that he is more productive.
This is our collective chance to prove to executives and stockholders that work-from-home is an excellent long-term option for most office based employees. Let’s not squander it. As always I welcome your comments and questions.