Associate Professor Aimee Hamilton answers questions about what companies should consider when evaluating work-from-home structures. Hamilton is the interim chair of the Department of Management and does research in sustained innovation in organizations as well as identity, image and reputation issues in companies.
Three big things to evaluate with work from home infrastructure: first, how well does it map onto your core business, on allowing you to deliver your value proposition to your customer? Second, what opportunities does it offer for creating related business and added value? Businesses should keep tracking their KPI’s and be prepared to adjust the infrastructure on the fly. Be willing to tweak as you go.
A big data point to watch for: changes in customer contacts, such as complaint volume and service calls. These can be powerful indicators of whether your work from home infrastructure is getting the job done.
Q: Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, what are the steps that an individual can take in order to successfully transition to a work from home environment?
A: There are three key steps for successfully transitioning to a work from home environment.
Step 1. Assemble the resources you will need to do your job so you can perform well and also have confidence in your ability to perform.
The basics for working from home are simple: computer, phone and reliable internet. Things people don’t necessarily think about but are important: set up a dedicated workspace, whether that is in a room or a corner of a room. Have a comfortable
desk and chair. An upgrade would be an adjustable desk so that you can alternate between sitting and standing. If your customer calls have shifted to video chats, you will need a good quality video camera and microphone. Newer laptops have those built-in, but consider an affordable plug and play external camera/microphone device, especially if you are using an external monitor. Also, now is a good time to upgrade the laptop if yours is over 4 years old. If you share your living space with others, consider investing in a headset with a noise-canceling microphone built-in. If you share your space with others, make sure they know your schedule. Tape a sign “call in progress,” “please do not disturb,” etc. to remind them that you are working or on a call.
Step 2. Practice using the technology. If you are doing videoconferences, spend some time inspecting your image. Record yourself and play it back so you know how you sound and look to others. Play around with the angle and the lighting – looking slightly up into the camera and some natural room light are best. Does your child’s gamer headset look too big and bulky on camera? Are your glasses reflecting the computer screen? People understand we are all working from home, but still expect some level of polish from you and your screen background. If you are going to do presentations and screen-sharing, practice using those tools before you launch.
Step 3. Stay connected with the now-virtual office. That means to communicate regularly with your colleagues. Supervisors should be checking in weekly with their reports. If your supervisor isn’t doing that, be proactive and check in with them. A brief progress report will keep you accountable and reassure your boss that you are engaged and can be relied upon in this crisis. Connection also means to know how to connect with your office virtually through technology, such as a VPN for accessing sensitive files, and setting up phone forwarding. It also means knowing the procedure for obtaining physical access to the office if you happen to need something that you left there. Last, consider the virtual “water cooler” aspect of remote work. Set up a time for casual socializing. My department has a weekly virtual happy hour hosted by a different person each Friday.
Supervisors, you have an extra responsibility at this time to make sure your people are connected in these various ways to you and each other. Even for long-time employees, it is important to clearly communicate your expectations and to be as transparent as possible. Also, have a backup plan and communicate it in advance in case you or a worker falls ill. Remote work leaves lots of room for misunderstandings, confusion, and anxiety. The onus is on you to try to minimize these and reassure your subordinates that you will all get through this together.
Q: Should companies invest more of their resources in establishing a functional work from home alternative for their employees? Will remote jobs be easier to come by after the Coronavirus crisis has ended?
A: Absolutely, companies should be doing everything they can to support work from home alternatives for their employees, financially, physically, and emotionally. Public health experts have predicted that we may experience similar global disruptions in the future. Going forward, any business continuation planning should contemplate the possibility of a quick transition to remote work.
I do think that remote jobs will become more common after the Coronavirus crisis has ended. We will see work being done remotely that has previously been done in an office, a store, on-site, etc. I’m sure there are many creative experiments underway right now that are going to translate into innovative remote work arrangements post-COVID-19.
Q: What are the most important advantages and disadvantages of working from home?
A: Most of the advantages and disadvantages of working from home are widely known. Pros for workers: shorter commutes, sometimes flexible hours and more casual dress. Pros for bosses and companies: less overhead. But that overhead then becomes a burden for the workers (e.g., higher utilities). This is an area where companies might be able to help out financially. And, bosses often have an “out of sight, out of mind,” attitude about teleworkers. Then there are the costs of social isolation and greater difficulty communicating with everyone. These are somewhat intangible but can also affect performance and the bottom line. One big question that needs to be studied and better understood is career advancement and mobility. Does remote work hurt or help the worker’s career? Why and under what conditions?