Afraid of Letting People Work from Home?

August 09, 2011

Posted in Higher Ed, Leadership, Small Business, and Web Industry.

Last year during a higher ed panel discussion, I mentioned that most of my team works from home several days a week. In fact, sometimes an employee is only in the office one or two days a week.

This immediately generated questions about productivity, how I keep tabs on their work, and whether HR approves of this policy. (What HR doesn’t know won’t hurt them, I said, but in our case HR knows and takes a similar stance to mine.)

Today, I saw an infographic about the rise of mobile workers enabled by increasing use of mobile devices. And recently, there was this Dilbert cartoon poking fun at traditional work setups:

Behind the Fear of Letting Employees Work from Home

The biggest reason managers are afraid of these kinds of arrangements is the lack of control. Managers can’t see their employees working, can’t pop in to make sure they’re being productive, and can’t measure the time they’re spending. For a long time, I got advice to the effect of “be the first one in and the last one out.” Presumably, working hard means working a lot of hours. And obviously, this only happens in the office.

The problem I found, in my early years of employment, was that I often went home and continued working. There wasn’t any difference between the office and my living room. In fact, I sometimes logged more hours working at home during nights and weekends than I did during the regular work schedule.

Drawbacks to Working from Home

The first problem is the blurring of work and home. Television, your family, the refrigerator – these can all help pull you away from your focus on work. Not everyone is disciplined enough to balance this, but it helps to create a specific work space and set expectations for yourself and your family about when you’re working. I’ve heard it helps to dress up as if you’re going in to work, though I rarely do this unless I have a video chat. Comfort is one of the biggest benefits, in my mind. It’s also possible to go the other way – to work extra hours without really intending to – and find yourself out of balance.

A second problem is the lack of organic, collaborative interaction with your colleagues. This continues to be a struggle in our office. Sometimes you need a quick meeting with people, and the phone or video chat are poor substitutes. And frankly, meetings where one person is present on the phone often leads to talking over each other, misunderstanding tone, and altering the emotion in the room. Technology hasn’t perfectly addressed this yet.

Overcoming Our Fears

My policy is that as long as you get your work done, hit your deadlines, and are reachable and responsive – it doesn’t really matter when or where you work. If those aren’t happening, then working from home might be the problem. Or it could be something else – and that’s our job as managers to address. Simply being in the office certainly isn’t a cure-all for productivity ills.

We can’t police what everyone is doing all the time. And if we’re honest with ourselves, does it really matter? What matters is the result: I need good (no, great) work done and I need it on time. If you take a break to write a blog post or watch a YouTube video, did it stop you from getting your job done?

As they say, work isn’t a place you go but a thing you do.


  1. Joseph Dabon — August 11, 2011

    Thought this was about the current home-based business. Working from home for a conventional business is still unwieldy in the areas of operations and manufacturing. Probably good in the areas of sales and finance.

  2. Mark Greenfield — August 10, 2011

    Great post. I would love to see ROWE make it’s way to college campuses. (

  3. Susan T. Evans — August 10, 2011

    Well put. The best leaders understand the difference between just showing up and making a contribution. When a management strategy focuses on “keeping tabs” and questioning productivity, establishing a culture of collaboration and commitment is harder to achieve. Kudos to you and your team for making this work for the university and for the individuals.

  4. Stephanie Cockerl — August 10, 2011

    Thanks for finally bringing working from home to light. Among the reasons I choose to work with higher ed is to have a work/life balance and sometimes life happens. Higher Ed, like others companies need to consider allowing folks to work from home.

  5. Lori Packer — August 10, 2011

    Great post, Chad. The issue I have run into is the “not everyone can work from home, so no one can work from home” response. There are some people — for example, office management and administrative staff — who do have to physically be in the office every day. So rather than engender feelings of jealousy among staff, the feeling is you shouldn’t do it at all or — if you do work from home on occasion, you’re expected to keep it quiet. It’s pretty short-sighted in my view, and doesn’t give people enough credit for being grownups and understanding that different jobs have different requirements.

  6. Chas Grundy — August 10, 2011

    @Mark – Hell yeah. We tried to introduce a formal ROWE environment in our office a few years back but found it tough to balance ROWE with a billable-hour model like ours.

    @Stephanie – The same goes for being able to duck out of the office during the day to work out. Higher ed is often noted for work/life balance, and it’s too bad that doesn’t extend to working from home.

    @Lori – I always hated that approach. Not everyone is the same, and our preferences and work demands differ. Plus, it’s a nice benefit that we can offer since salaries and other benefits are often out of my control.