A very good idea from a venerable management expert, with a surprising amount of benefits…
We remember a situation as a guest lecturer in which we felt more or less forced to sit in a noisy and rather uncomfortable office. Not quite conducive to productivity, so in the end, we decided to work from home in the mornings. These kind of notions are catching on…
President Obama, here is a deceptively simple action item to put on your agenda for business growth, working families, and a green future: Make it the norm for everyone to work at home at least one day a week. That single step could raise productivity, save energy, decrease pollution, reduce traffic congestion, cut household expenses, increase quality of family life, and keep educated women in the work force.
Workers of the world, go remote!
During this time of economic crisis and reinvention of global capitalism, one of the things crying out for reinvention is the rigid workplace of the last century. It is amazing in the digital age that most work is still associated with industrial age work rhythms and the symbolic chains that tie workers, knowledge and otherwise, to fixed locations. Flexible workplaces with flexible hours and days are long in coming.
Many U.S. cities have become commuter nightmares as urban sprawl sends people across longer distances in their cars every week day. According to the 2008 U.S. Census estimates, 84 percent of the U.S. population lives within 363 metropolitan areas that spill over central city boundaries and, in some cases, over state lines. Jobs within central business districts have been declining, while jobs outside a ten-mile ring have been growing. Vehicle miles traveled have increased twice as fast as population growth.
The daily commute to work has high costs in time, aggravation, fuel consumption, and pollution. If it became a staggered commute of four days a week for everyone, then perhaps 20 percent of the traffic could be gone, vanished, poof, just like that.
Choosing how long to work and on what schedule has long showed productivity benefits. People are less stressed when they can adjust their hours or days to family or personal needs. A greater feeling of control is associated with more energy and better health, studies show, making those workers more productive. Some savvy senior executives stay out of their offices occasionally even when not traveling, because they get more done in a setting with no interruptions, at home or elsewhere. The CEO of a global professional services firm has made a quiet table in a restaurant his preferred office-away-from-the-office, sometimes for the entire day.
For many working parents, the chance to work remotely is the primary way to achieve work-life balance. Many women leave high-powered corporate and professional careers when they have children, frequently starting their own businesses they can run from home, because there is no flexibility and no middle ground between the all-out grind at a workplace demanding physical presence or opting out. A norm of remote work for everyone would ease the strain.
It is a 24/7 world of work anyway. Somebody is always awake and working somewhere in the world at any time, and he might be your customer, vendor, or teammate. If a professional can have a conference call in her pajamas in the evening after the kids are in bed, why shouldn’t she spend the next day at home, finishing the report while they play nearby? Free agents and independent contractors have this privilege but at the cost of security and fringe benefits.
Technology exists to make remote work feasible and effective. Cell phones have liberated people from desks. Cisco’s telepresence capabilities make it possible to feel as though you are in the meeting room with people anywhere in the world, sitting just across the conference table. Imagine that in the home. The need for high-speed network connections is another argument for universal broadband and wi-fi access, with tax deductibility or reimbursement to employees for the connections to their home, as IBM does in India, for example.
The barriers are the usual human ones. Without a culture of strong accountability, collaboration, trust and personal responsibility, remote work doesn’t work. That culture is missing in too many organizations. Managers don’t always know how to coordinate and communicate with people they do not see face to face; they must value the work product and not the face time. Leadership is important. People need clear goals, deadlines, and performance metrics. Team members need trust and the ability to rely on and fill in for one another. And just as managers should not discriminate against people who choose more remote work time, those who work flexibly need to make sure they do not appear to put their personal lives above their commitments to colleagues, companies, and outcomes.
To reinvent the work place, we need public officials to put the infrastructure and permission in place, companies to start the change process, and people to learn how to work together with new norms. With Stephanie Khurana, founder of several high-tech companies and now the flexible consulting firm, Higher Aims, I want to start a dialogue about etiquette for the flexible workplace. Let’s do it with the time we are saving and the energy we are conserving by not going into the office one day a week.
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The idea here is working at home just one day a week. Working at home full time comes with disadvantages though:
- Social capital and trust, essential ingredients for knowledge exchange and the ‘unofficial’ organization (the network of interpersonal relationships that is often essential for getting things done) will suffer.
- People can very well start to feel isolated and less visible, a loss in itself, and leading to a sense of loss of control at management levels.
Empowerment is generally a good thing though, and no-one has ever put it better than General Patton though: “Don’t tell people what to do. Tell them what you want them to achieve, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”