Chief Executive Insights

Letting everyone work from home forever isn’t good for teamwork

One of the positive things to come out of the COVID-19 crisis is the fact that organisations around the world have finally removed the barriers to their staff being able to work from home. There were never any technological barriers to people doing so, most of the issues centred around a lack of trust in staff or the intransigence of a senior manager who insisted that people could only ever work productively in an office.

Once managers overcome that fixed mindset thinking and open themselves up to the opportunities that remote working offers, then the rewards can be great.

Cisco is one such organisation. For over 10 years, 90% of their employees have been telecommuting once a week. This saves over three million hours of commuting, providing them with $270m more productive time and stopping over 47,000 tons of carbon from being pumped into the atmosphere. The numbers for remote working certainly stack up.

Buoyed by the success of remote working, many organisations are now thinking of doing it full-time. Significantly reducing their floor-space by taking away offices and dismantling the open plan arrangements that were supposed to increase productivity, but instead led to an influx of headphones.

However, making working from home the only option would be a bad thing to do for most organisations and teams because not all of their work can (or should) be done remotely and it’s not an approach that suits everyone’s working style.

Twitter were the first to say that their staff could work from home forever in the early days of the pandemic and many others have followed suit. But whilst it may seem to be the right thing to do right now, it is also the easy thing to do as we are not yet able – as a result of the pandemic – to be together in numbers in enclosed spaces. Once that changes, then this approach will need to be re-thought.

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix has said the complete opposite, stating that he has not seen “any positives” from working at home and that not being able to get together to discuss ideas in person is a “pure negative.”

The answer to successful teamwork lies in the middle of the two.

Working from home should be one of the options available to staff, such that they are able to best select the workspace they need to be in, in order to achieve the targets that have been set. Some people will have a preference for home working, whilst others will be desperate to get back into the office.

In this ‘work from anywhere’ approach, where staff are located is often not specified by management, instead the team decides which work requires physical co-location for periods of time; which work requires face-to-face availability and which work can be done at home.

These teams and organisations focus on doing these three things really well to ensure that productivity and trust is maintained:

  1. They co-create a culture that people feel a sense of belonging to because they recognise that this is the foundation for all productive work. This is a deliberate, inclusive exercise that provides a definition of the behaviours and collaboration principles that they can then hold themselves accountable to wherever they may be
  2. They have team leaders that know how to set and manage people to expectations so that there is no ambiguity about the products or quality that’s expected. The emphasis is on smaller teams setting the parameters for success. This will be a challenge for many as in one Microsoft survey last year 61% of managers feel that they have not effectively learned how to delegate and empower virtual teams
  3. They manage underperformers with empathy but firmness to ensure that nobody undermines the culture and that targets are hit. They don’t tolerate brilliant jerks or allow anyone to compromise the arrangements that they have in place

This ‘design your week’ approach is a sign that an organisation is people-first in all of its actions, not just in words. Those that work in this way aren’t looking to save money on real estate, they are realistic about the requirements that people within their cultures have for productive work and prioritise accordingly.

They invest in quiet spaces, group spaces, collaboration tools, common sense processes, management training and coaching, team empowerment and, most of all, cultural definition – upon which everything is built.

In these organisations, working from home is one option, but not the only one.


Written by Colin D Ellis. Here’s what you’ve missed?
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Colin D. Ellis
Colin D. Ellis is a culture change expert, and an award-winning author and international speaker. Based in Australia, Colin is the author of four books, including his most recent, Culture Hacks: 26 Ideas to Transform the Way You Work (Major Street $29.95) and Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work (Wiley, Nov. 4, 2019). Colin D Ellis is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or connect on LinkedIn.