J W at home working.jpgIf you’ve been paying attention to the news out of Silicon Valley recently, it would be hard to miss the uproar about Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s decree that Yahoo! would no longer allow its people to work from home.

I spent several years leading marketing and internal communications for the remote work program at Cisco Systems.  During that time, our policies evolved and grew into a sophisticated program designed to create competitive advantage for Cisco in both its access to skilled workforce and in serving its customers.

I don’t want to jump into the debate about Yahoo!, nor do I want to discuss how organizations and employees benefit from remote work.  My colleague Faith LeGendre has covered that very well.

I want to take a closer look at how to make remote work (which includes working from home, working in a remote location, or even just having a geographically diverse team) actually work well and benefit both the company and the employee.

First, let me debunk a few myths:

  • Working from home is not with young children.
  • Working remotely is not just about wanting schedule flexibility for personal needs.
  • Working remotely to achieve a flexible schedule does not reduce productivity.
  • When remote work programs fail, it’s generally because of poor technology planning or a lack of good management practices.
  • Collaboration and informal interaction do not require being in the same location.

Making a remote work program work for the benefit of everyone requires hard work and a shift in thinking on the part of both the employee and the company.  The goal of a remote work program should be to make employees just productive from anywhere as they would be in an office.

For the company and the remote worker’s manager, these practices will help make you and your people successful and productive no matter where they are:

  • Shift your thinking from presence focused to results focused.

One of managers’ most common complaints about people who work remotely is that they can’t see whether they are working. I suggest that your inoffice workers are probably also pretty adept at making you think they are working even when they are not.  But it just doesn’t matter.

Whether your people are in your office or somewhere else, remember that you hired them to produce results.  It may require a bit more rigor on your part, but make sure both you and they understand what those results are and how you expect them to be achieved.

Be honest:  if your people are producing great results, does it matter whether they did all the work between 9 and 5?  Or is it OK with you if they did some of the work at 3 AM?

This also means you need to set expectations and have an explicit agreement on when the remote worker will be reachable for emergencies and other time critical matters.  Make sure you know what you actually need and what is reasonable to expect.

  • Be reasonable and allow yourself a learning curve.

Managing remote workers is not easy. You will find that shifting your thinking, measuring results in a different way, and trusting your workers more completely than you likely have before is challenging and requires a learning curve.

Don’t expect more from your remote workers than from your inoffice workers (though you will probably get more) and watch yourself for inequities in your treatment of the two. This will get easier with time, and it will be much easier if your company’s HR team provides support and training.

  • Create formal agreements and stick to them.

Your remote workers should know what you expect from them, and you should know how they are meeting those expectations.

When you either hire a remote worker or change an inoffice worker into a remote worker, create a formal written agreement.  Outline everything from objectives, expected results, response times, and availability to reporting and collaborating with colleagues across the company.

  • Get the technology right.

Don’t skimp.  The technology available in today’s market for making remote workers effective is both very good and very affordable.  Make sure you have the technology that allows your remote workers to get the job done as efficiently as your inoffice workers.

For the remote worker, make sure you work effectively and follow these ideas to help your management realize as much benefit as you do from your working remotely:

  • It’s not about your convenience; it’s about producing results.

As with so many communications you have with your management, explaining why you need this “privilege” just doesn’t cut it.  Explain how it will benefit your manager and the company.  Show how you will make it work.  Sell your manager on trusting you to make it work.

  • Take it slowly.

Don’t walk into your manager’s office and announce your plan to work remotely full-time starting Monday.  Start with one or two days per week.  Create milestones that show your part-time remote work plan works.  Then go to three days per week.  Then four.

When you are choosing which days to start with, intentionally choose days that will show that you can work effectively.  For example, choose a day when a weekly team meeting occurs, then demonstrate your outstanding participation in that meeting while sitting in your living room.

  • Demonstrate results.

If there is one single key to success in remote work, this is it:  create external objective evidence of your work.  Your management will not see every bit of work you do remotely. But they can always see the outcome of your work.

For example, let’s say your job is to run email marketing campaigns.  You and they both know lots of planning and collaboration go into creating those campaigns.  But they may or may not see that.  What they will see is that the campaign launched and produced results.

  • Learn to collaborate online.

Both structured and impromptu collaboration can easily happen from anywhere.  But for most of us, it’s not natural to strike up informal conversations electronically.

I can’t put too fine a point on this:  learn how.  Getting good at making connections and developing relationships with people you can’t (and may never) see is critical to your success.

  • Overcoming resistance is about proving success.

This is generic but critical to making it work.  Some managers will resist the idea of having someone work remotely.  You can’t change the culture overnight, but you can create opportunities to prove success.  Create trial remote work times.  Develop result focused plans for making it succeed.

When the trial period ends, make sure you have lots of evidence of success to show your manager the benefits and start planning for a larger trial.  Make your success available to others also:  the more people who show and prove success, the faster the culture of resistance will change.

The list of benefits of remote work for both employees and employers is seemingly endless, so there’s no reason not to get started.  Remember, if your people can’t work remotely for you, they might just work remotely for your competition.