How to create an effective telework policy

When poor air days or big snow storms hit the valley, working from home might be the most sensible solution. But some employers are hesitant to give employees so much unsupervised flexibility. It’s a new idea. And new ideas can be scary. Here are some tips and suggestions to think about as your company explores the need for a telework policy.

Where do you start?

Ryan Nelson says the magic words:

“Who wouldn’t want to work from home in their pjs?” says Nelson, president at Employer’s Council.

Usually, companies already know the answer to that question. But letting an employee work from home without a policy in place isn’t effective.

Elisa Garn, director elect for the Utah chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, says to develop a telework policy for the right reasons—don’t create a half-baked policy just to fit in.

“Companies that struggle with this sort of throw it in as a quick solution to, ‘We’ve got culture problems and want to be hip and trendy” or maybe, ‘We’ve got one person doing it’ but we won’t lay it out for other people,'” Garn says.

Before you put the policy in place, explore what you want out of it. Ryan Nelson says to make sure your employee’s technology and workload allows the option of pushing the work to a home office.

“Functionally, most of my staff can do their jobs from their living rooms—effectively, I think,” says Nelson. “That’s the rub, though. From the employer’s perspective that’s the dominant concern. Is work occurring with that same effectiveness, efficiency and output that I think I’m getting when my employees work from home?”

As an employer, you need to explore these questions and set up performance standards before you excuse people from the office cubicles.

What’s a common obstacle?

Nelson says one of the first challenges might be generational leadership and the second is trust. Nelson used to work at a law firm where he came up against a generational mindset that actual face-to-face time was the important factor in measuring output.

“Frankly, I disagree,” Nelson says. “But as an associate attorney, my butt had to be in the chair from early morning until sometime in the evening. And if it wasn’t, or if I wasn’t accessible, my efficiency was viewed as less.”

Rod Lacey, former chief people officer at 1-800 Contacts, doesn’t see face-to-face as the only effective way to work either.

“I don’t agree with that at all because I’ve had such good experience with the at-home program. Retention was so high. If you worked from home, the company expected a higher standard.”

That measured out to higher performance, engagement and retention, he says. “What more could you ask for?”

How do you cultivate trust and accountability?  

Garn says the first thing you should do—before you even write the policy—is assess the trust level between employees and management.

“You can’t play Big Brother to everyone in your organization. That’s absolutely critical.”

Offer the policy to workers who make it past their probationary period, for example. Don’t just hand it out to the newbie who’s been there a week. And make sure you’ve got effective at-home training in place before you send people to their living rooms to work. Finally, build trust by making sure at-home employees don’t feel isolated. Invite them to the office potluck and the big weekly meeting.

Lacey says about 50 percent of the workforce at 1-800-Contacts works from home. And retention is incredibly high among those workers.

“We did everything we could to help them in the isolation and help them feel like they were part of a larger organization,” Lacey says.

How do you know if it’s working?

Find a way to measure productivity and deliverables, says Nelson. Putting work expectations on paper helps you measure someone’s at-home work performance on any given week. You need to develop mutual transparency, clear expectations and consistent communication about the at-home workload. And the transparency goes both ways.

“Employee needs to understand they’ve been given trust and opportunity, so don’t blow it,” Nelson says. “When I’m asking for data to support those output metrics, don’t get offended.”

But Nelson adds he needs to give the employee the benefit of the doubt.

“We trust you unless you show me otherwise. If an employee can start with that, I think they’re in a better position to succeed.”

Biggest piece of advice for creating a telework policy?

“Give it a try. Simple as that. I think you’ll be impressed with how well it works.” – Rod Lacey

“Make sure it aligns with who the company is and how they operate. If they’re just doing it to attract talent it’s misguided. If you offer it without the trust piece it absolutely won’t be successful. Make sure it fits the culture.” – Elisa Garn

“I think it’s something employers should seriously consider. The starting point for employers shouldn’t be ‘Nah, can’t do it.’ It should be ‘Why not?’ Flip the question: ‘Why won’t it work for us? Why not?'” – Ryan Nelson