Three months after having my first baby, my business partner and investor approached me to ask how often I expected to be making an appearance at the office. Considering I was officially back to work on Day 9 after my son's birth, my first impulse was to turn on my heel and walk away. Instead, I calmly asked the question, 'Why do you ask?' As it turns out, the business lab's downtown Manhattan headquarters was looking to add an in-house lawyer to the team and he was eyeing my large, windowed -- and frequently unoccupied -- office. My investor's point was that considering the out-of-office nature of my business, my flexible hours and my desire to spend more time with my son, the physical office space was an unnecessary drag on my P&L.
Not only was he right, but I was excited at the prospect of a nontraditional work environment and it turns out I'm not alone. Over 75 percent of the more than 7,000 global professionals LinkedIn surveyed to forecast office tools and trends would agree that flexible hours and telecommuting are the way of the future. While cutting overhead, retaining talent, reducing absenteeism and working from home sound like win-win benefits, I quickly learned there are a number of issues with not going into the office.
One of the things I've seen time and time again -- and quickly discovered myself -- is that many of us fantasize about working from home until about a month later when we're sitting in our pajamas and haven't left the house during daylight hours. With limited separation between the personal and the professional and little contact with others, working from home can become depressing and zaps motivation. Not only do we depend on people, our careers depend on people. We require interaction to be successful. The opportunity to talk things out in order to come to a conclusion and create innovative ideas can be tough without the lunchroom. Thankfully, technology is an enormous help in terms of connecting us with others. Joining virtual, industry-based LinkedIn Groups where you are free to ask questions and share ideas and thoughts with legitimate professionals helps you get away from stagnation and fosters an environment of creativity... all from the comfort of your home.
But while you should take advantage of professional networking websites like LinkedIn, the important thing here is to take them off-line -- especially when you don't have a regular routine allowing you to bump into colleagues in the elevator or chat up a potential new client while waiting in line to grab coffee. After you've gotten all the surface stuff out of the way online and have established that this is a relationship worth investing in, a meaningful face-to-face conversation about trends in your industry, who your mutual colleagues are, your respective challenges and a list of what you can do to help each other, will ensure you're both caffeinated and motivated when you return to your "office."
And this office space of yours is another thing to consider. I'm actually less worried about whether you find yourself most productive in your bed than if that bed is filled with your kids, dog and husband. Laser-like focus and discipline are essential for telecommuting -- and hard to realize in a room filled with loved ones and laundry. Ideally you'll have both physical and mental space conducive to concentration and output. For concerned employers, it's not a bad idea to check out your employee's new "cubicle" to ensure that it meets all applicable employment laws and obligations. And speaking of obligations, the best flexible working environments have clearly defined and communicated duties, expectations and deadlines between employer and employee (not a bad idea to include customers and co-workers as well).
Because of the inherent self-motivated nature of this kind of flexible environment, it's important for both employers and employees to note that while working styles don't change, whatever side you hedge on (overachiever or procrastinator), you are more likely to go to your extreme without someone looking over your shoulder. This means that as employees we need to be self-aware and either work with a clear to-do list (and a promise to steer clear of the television remote) or have a timer that indicates the day is done. As a business owner, remind yourself that what you saw at the office is probably what's going down at home. There are days (usually after four or five in a row) when I haven't seen hide nor hair of some of my staff and the agita it produces makes me wonder if I need to refine my policy. What I've learned is that the motivated young woman I hired is no more likely to be playing Solitaire at home than she was at the office and as long as she's getting the work done, do I really care that she's doing it at 10 at night because she decided to go for an afternoon run?
When it comes down to it, a flexible working environment requires trust, and interestingly, this is exactly what employees are looking for. At the end of the aforementioned LinkedIn study, respondents were asked to offer up a "dream tool." Without a list to choose from, "the trust of my employer" came up more than 100 times. Flexible work hours and telecommuting are an excellent way of demonstrating trust. Which I'll be sure to keep in mind the next time my investor innocently inquires after my whereabouts.
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