Read This Before Letting Your Employees Work from Home

remote working

The Employer Alliance recently stated that many Singaporeans (literally, hundreds of thousands) could re-enter the workforce, and hence ease Singapore’s manpower shortage, if more companies were willing to adopt flexible working arrangements. Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) also released figures revealing that more than 160,000 economically inactive individuals want to find work within the next two years, but are, for one reason or another, unable to do so. In other words, due to a reluctance on the part of employers in adopting flexible working arrangements to accommodate individual circumstances, Singapore continues to suffer from severe manpower shortage.

In some sense, it’s hard to blame employers for erring on the cautious side. ‘Face-time’ is still highly valued as a traditional marker of worker productivity by employers – workers who are seen less are generally perceived to be less productive. This is hardly a rational measure, but one that employers stick to nonetheless.

Despite the trend towards flexible work arrangements, companies are still unwilling to let all its employers have that degree of freedom. For example, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made abold move by ending Yahoo’s work-from-home program. Following suit, other giants such as Best Buy also stopped their work from home programs, and many have either applauded the move, or denounced it in its entirety.


The Debate: Pros and Cons of Working-from-Home

According to some, the end of the work from home option in Yahoo and Best Buy  creates serious repercussions for men and women between the ages of 40 and 60, as the typical teleworker is 49 years old, rather than the 20-something. Parents have also raised a chorus of disapproval, complaining that this has destroyed their chances to have a career as well as being a mother or father.

On the other hand, many have stood up in support of the move.  In defense, they point out that those who work in the office often have higher productivity, lower idle time, and take shorter breaks.  Yet, even they have conceded that telecommuting options should still be open under certain circumstances – whether it to save on office space, or to find candidates from a broader pool.

So it seems that the majority believe that flexible working arrangements have their merits, and should not be completely abolished. How, then, should employers abolish the undesirable effects?


Take a Leaf from the Apple Playbook

Apple seems to be doing phenomenally well with its “massive network of remote customer support agents” (i.e. At-Home Apple Advisors). The challenge they faced, as do many companies, is in training a diverse group of people, spread out across the world. What they did was to put their advisors through an intensive four week, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. training program:

“The curriculum is broken into four, one-week sections that are a mix of live instruction and self-paced modules in iDesk. Then at the end of each week, everyone takes an exam. They have two chances to hit the grading benchmark (two advisors said this was 89 percent, one said it was 80 percent), before they are kicked out of the program. So immediately, workers have an impetus not only to pay attention, but to keep the job once it’s final because they worked so hard to get there.”

In other words, the sheer difficulty of passing the training program makes workers want to work hard to keep their jobs. Apple also employs some other (draconian?) tactics to make sure that their advisors are not goofing off:

 “For example, trainers deliver regular prompts to each person throughout live instruction. These can be questions, requests for input, or just a cue for the trainee to click on. One former advisor I spoke to said Apple monitors mouse movements. If your mouse doesn’t move in a certain amount of time, then you’re sent a prompt. If you still don’t respond within 30 seconds, the trainer might actually call your cell phone.

“In addition to these prompts, trainers can ask the class to turn on their cameras for group discussion at any moment, making it immediately clear if someone isn’t at their desk. Also, many of the test questions are worded in such a way that the trainee would only know the answer if they participated in all the past week’s activities.”

These are excellent methods of giving employees extrinsic motivation to stay on task. Additionally, Apple also works to keep employees intrinsically motivated through the use of team psychology (team-building exercises) and enforcement of company culture (an Apple ‘care package’ sent to each advisor).


The Key: Motivate Your Remote Workers

In sum, Apple’s remote working arrangements work remarkably well because they invest a lot of effort into making it work. In contrast, most companies simply grant their employees work-from-home time, and end it at that – no wonder their employees do not feel motivated to work hard!

The key to making telecommuting work, then, seems to be in creating a proper remote working program or scheme that suitably rewards/monitors the employees under it.


My Take

There are certain jobs where working from home is, well, pretty much an impossibility. There are others (largely digital-based work), though, in which it absolutely make sense for two reasons:

  1. Remote workers, being able to work at times when they are at their best, tend to work the hardest at home (sometimes, even too hard)
  2. Employees are treated like adults rather than children, and nobody wants a child in their company

Remote working is definitely a step forward, in my opinion. What do you think?


Most of this post originally appeared on Zopim’s Blog: Read this before Letting Your Employees Work From Home


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