Cut the Commute: Work From Home
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"Five percent of [Americans] surveyed said they would actually be willing to divorce their spouse if that meant they could stop commuting and work from home instead."1
While the vast majority of us wouldn't resort to something quite so drastic, more and more people are seeking out ways to spend less time commuting and to incorporate more flexibility into their work schedules. However, before you request a work-from-home arrangement, there are some important things to consider.
First, research whether your company has a work-from-home policy. If it does, are there any requirements that you must meet? For example, do you need to have been employed at the company for a certain length of time? If there is no established policy, ask around to find out if anyone currently has this privilege; this can help you gauge how receptive your company may be to your request.
Next, look at the situation through your own lens. Objectively consider whether working from home is a practical option for you by asking yourself two questions:
- Do I have the discipline and focus to be as productive (or more productive) at home as I am at the office? Working from home presents multiple distractions and of a different variety than those at the office. For example, there is the temptation to take more personal phone calls, to get the laundry done, to pick up around the house, to pay a few bills, etc.
- Can I effectively perform my job at home? Is it realistic given my role, function and product or service? Am I in a leadership position in which face-to-face access is important? Does my role require frequent interfacing with coworkers or other departments? For example, if I work in advertising, is it important that I am there in person to view artwork and contribute to group discussions?
Then, evaluate it through the lens of others. Complete a very comprehensive analysis of the pros and cons from many points of view: your boss's, your coworkers' and your company's. Also take into account your workplace environment and culture. Potential obstacles you may encounter include:
- An "old school" mentality: If working from home would require a culture shift for your boss and your company, they may very well bristle at the suggestion because it will make them uncomfortable.
- Productivity concerns: Your boss might worry that when you're "out of sight," you will be more likely to spend your time on activities other than work.
- Need for control: Depending on your boss's temperament, he or she may feel the need to be very involved in your daily work in order to know exactly what's being accomplished and how.
- Communication breakdown: If you're physically out of the office, your boss might be concerned that you'll be "out of the loop" regarding the latest developments or that it will take extra effort and time to help ensure that you are kept informed.
- Fear of making an exception: If your company doesn't have a work-from-home policy in place, it may be wary about extending that benefit to a select few. When special privileges are granted to one or a few employees, others often become jealous. One of my clients has a legitimate medical reason for working from home a few days a week. However, her coworkers are now exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior, resentment and jealousy; this has changed the dynamics of her job in ways she hadn't anticipated.
If, after evaluating a work-from-home arrangement from all viewpoints, you conclude that it is a viable option, you should next refine your request by considering:
- During which hours are you most productive? Take into account whether you are a morning or a night person.
- Do you perform better in chunks of time rather than working straight through your day? Are there certain times of the day when you need to be available to your family? If either is true, you may want to request a schedule that allows for two- or three-hour work increments with a break in between.
- Given your needs and your role at the company, how many days a week would you ideally like to work from home?
- What's driving your desire for more flexibility? Is it to be able to take your kids to school and be there when they get home? Is it to accommodate day care hours? Is it for medical reasons? It's important to communicate your reasons when making the request.
- What's best for you individually and for your rest and rejuvenation? In order to best serve your family and your company, you need to pay attention to your own needs and think about where you can create the most time to take care of yourself.
Once you've honed your request, it's now time to prepare to approach your boss by determining your strategy. If anyone in your department or company is currently working from home, talk to them to find out more about their arrangement, how they approached their boss and if they have any advice regarding what has worked best for them.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is presenting their request with a self-serving focus instead of an employer focus. Employers are most likely to respond favorably to a work-from-home request when it is very clear how the situation will benefit them. For example, employers are likely to agree to such an arrangement if:
- They think it will help them keep a crucial employee.
- The employee is well-acclimated to the business and understands the nuances involved.
- They believe that the employee could perform their role and function at the same level or an enhanced level from home. The employer will be more open to the idea if they think that the employee could get more work done (e.g., because the person will experience fewer interruptions and will spend more time working now that they aren't commuting).
- They believe it will save them money.
Emphasize how working from home will contribute to the quantity, quality and efficiency of your work, as well as how it might save your employer money. Revisit the list of pros and cons that you developed. For the pros, figure out how to present those to each audience in a way that highlights how the arrangement will benefit them and address their concerns. For the cons, be prepared to discuss any challenges that each audience may bring up.
Also, think through the processes involved in your job in order to set expectations. For example, will the communication chain need to change with the new arrangement? If so, detail how you will address it in order to avoid annoyances and promote flow, ease and enhancement.
Are you intimidated by the reaction you might get from your boss? Try to determine whether your worries are born out of fear of confrontation or insecurity about making a request. Or, are they more realistic and based on others' experiences with asking for similar types of arrangements? You can help soothe your jitters and set the foundation to make an effective request by factoring in the following:
- Being well-prepared helps to alleviate anxiety. Detail how you see the arrangement working; how you will address any issues or concerns that arise; how you will maintain effective communication with your boss, coworkers and stakeholders, etc. In addition, prepare responses to any potential pushback you may receive.
- Decide what you will say to your boss and practice it out loud with a friend or family member. This will help you to refine your presentation and deliver it more smoothly.
- Visualize having the conversation with your boss in order to desensitize yourself physiologically.
- Consider the worst-case scenario of presenting your request. Then, to help minimize your anxiety, bounce that scenario off of others in order to determine if your fears are reasonable.
- Approach the conversation in an appropriate mood and tone. Don't start the conversation when you're feeling anxious or fearful; enter into it with a mood of possibility and positivity. And remember that you're making a request, not a demand.
- Use deep diaphragmatic breathing right before addressing the topic with your boss; this is the fastest way to reduce anxiety.
- Do your best to ensure that you have a committed listener. Enter into the conversation at a time when you will have your boss's attention, not when you're passing each other in the hall.
- Offer context for why you are making the request.
- Suggest a trial run to see how it works. It's much easier to get a "yes" when you're asking to test it out than when you're asking for an official, long-term commitment.
- Keep in mind that being able to make big requests like this often earns the respect of others.
Making the Case for Working From Home
Experts have found that when employees work from home, employers benefit, too, through:
- Increased productivity
- Greater morale
- Lower absenteeism
- Less turnover, which saves money on hiring and training
- Reduced office space needs
In fact, Stanford University recently published a study which focused on remote work at a 13,000-employee company in China. "During the 9-month study, they found:
- A 12 percent increase in productivity for the at-home workers. Of that increase, 8.5 percent came from working more hours (due to shorter breaks and fewer sick days) and 3.5 percent came from more performance per minute. The researchers speculate this was due to quieter working conditions.
- A 50 percent decrease in attrition among the work-from-home group.
- Substantially higher work satisfaction as measured by a survey among the home group."2
Now, you're ready to broach the subject with your boss and one of the best ways to do so is by asking for a three-month trial period. This is especially important if your employer doesn't typically allow employees to work from home. By asking for a trial period, you aren't asking for anything official; you're offering to "beta test" the arrangement so that your employer can make a more informed decision later.
During the trial period, it's essential to create a continuous feedback loop to allow for necessary adjustments and to keep your boss up to date regarding what you are working on and what you accomplish each day. Be proactive by asking about his or her concerns so that you can actively address them. And if you experience a challenge with the new arrangement, it's helpful to highlight how you tackled it. This demonstrates that you're serious about making it work.
Do your best to over-perform because the outcome doesn't just affect you; it also potentially affects others on your team or in your company who request a similar arrangement in the future. Over-communicate with your boss, coworkers and stakeholders; over-deliver on projects; and, ideally, work more hours than when in the office. Overall, don't take the privilege lightly.
When it comes to working from home, one of the greatest obstacles is that it represents a culture shift in businesses. However, as the benefits become better documented and understood, opportunities are likely to continue growing. And while it's important to spend time reflecting and planning in order to make the best case for your request, in the end, you'll never know if you don't ask.
1Fiegerman, Seth. "5% of Americans Would Get Divorced Just to Work From Home." MainStreet. TheStreet, 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 09 Oct. 2012. <http://www.mainstreet.com/article/career/employment/5-americans-would-get-divorced-just-work-home>.
2Finley, Klint. "Working From Home? You’re a Better Worker." Wired. Condé Nast, 31 Aug. 2012. Web. 9 Oct. 2012. <http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2012/08/working-from-home-youre-a-better-worker/>.