how to decide whether to let someone work remotely

Managers are increasingly hearing requests from their employees to work remotely, either once a week or as much as full-time. If you’re a manager, how should you evaluate these requests and decide if it makes sense to say yes?

Here are six ways to assess whether telecommuting could work for your team members.

  • Assess what you know about the person. How long have you worked with the person who’s making the request? Are they new and untested, or someone who’s proven their work ethic and conscientiousness? Speaking of their work ethic, what do you know about it? Are they easily distracted? How much oversight do they require to work at a high level?
  • Assess what you know about the role. Some roles lend themselves to working from home more than others. Some roles canbe done from home, but it means the rest of the team will pick up a greater burden (for instance, fielding more of the tasks that require an in-office presence). Other roles can be done from home with minimal inconvenience to anyone else.
  • Assess what you know about your team. Some teams rely on in-person collaboration and someone out of sight will be out of mind. Other teams are great about including people who aren’t physically on-site. How does your team operate in that regard?
  • Try telecommuting as a limited-time experiment and see how it goes. If you agree to try it and revisit the question after a month or three months, you won’t be locked in, and it will be easier to say “this isn’t working out” if you need to (as opposed to revoking a longer-term arrangement someone was counting on). This also gives employees a chance to prove to you that they can make it work if you’re skeptical, rather than you just saying no without at least giving it a chance.
  • Set clear boundaries up front. Think about what could go wrong and figure out how to head that off. For example, you might have requirements around how accessible people need to be or what appropriate responsiveness looks like, and you should make it clear that telecommuting can’t be used a substitute for child care.
  • Realize that you might be setting a precedent, whether you intend to or not. You don’t have to treat everyone the same, but you should be prepared to be asked why others can’t work from home if Jane gets to. (Reasonable answers to that might be about the nature of Jane’s work, or the fact that’s she’s the guinea pig to figure out if a broader program makes sense, or that her tenure and high performance have earned it for her.)

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 16 comments… read them below }

  1. Xarcady*

    Back when I was a manager, with good employees who really wanted to work from home to escape the constant interruptions in our office, I found out that our state had an office devoted to getting more people to work from home. I think it was an effort to cut down on the number of cars on the highways, but the state did provide some support and people to bounce ideas off of.

    Things I remember, and that helped to convince my boss it was okay to let people work from home (she was convinced everyone would be slacking off):

    Have a written agreement that spells out all the details. Who provides the internet service, the computer, etc. Who services them when they break. What hours, if any, the employee needs to be available for the rest of the office, i.e. does the employee have to work 9-5, or can they work a bit in the morning, some more in the afternoon, and more in the evening? There are many samples out on the internet.

    Don’t start with a full week out of the office. Start with one set day a week.

    For employees with children, the employee had to prove they had childcare. This was not for the occasional sick kid home from school, but for people with little kids, who might be trying to save on childcare by staying home. If you need the employee available during set hours to work with other employees or clients, having a small baby at home does not work. According to the people from the state with whom I talked, this was one of the biggest issues employers feared.

    Focus on the advantages of working from home. On snow days, your employees can take their laptops home the night before. No snow? No problem, they can still come in to work. Snow? They can work from home, perhaps just a half day, if their kids are home from school, but the work of the company will not necessarily grind to a halt.

    You can set requirements for working from home–it can be a perk for those who have been with the company more than a year, say. Only certain types of jobs can be done from home.

  2. ZenCat*

    Oh how I miss work at home life… I’ve done it periodically as well as about 5 years home at least 75% of the time.

    I really do agree that the type of work is very important to consider. In my work, unless meeting a new client or coordinating something major that I don’t want to do on the phone, I can do everything from home.

    I’d never worked for a controlling manager until my most recent. The frontline staff had very high turnover and the CEO just was not in to the idea. Professional staff worked from home for overtime (we’re all salaried of course) working regular hours it was just assumed you’d be watching Netflix and doing nothing. In a year I went to maybe 3 meetings because my boss had insane control issues (fine by me.. Updating her or telling her my decisions would have made it infinitely worse). Otherwise nobody at the company knew me for an entire year.

    My managers in the past also considered me personally, as the article touched on. Often, I was the only primarily homeworker on my team (I was also the only person doing my function, everyone else on the team did something that they needed to be inside the office for most of the time). I’m not sure how my manager dealt with the rest of the team. I am also very honest about the way I work… I simply cannot do my best stuck in one spot all day… Some of my best work thoughts occur in the shower or out on a walk then I hammer them out. As long as things were on time and I prioritized with leadership all was fine.

    Anyhow… I hope the article can help some managers at least chew on the idea. I am starting a new job soon and it is 100% in the office but is close to my home, and I will have my own space which is really the most important thing to me. Ive always been told I’m unique to manage but worth it.

  3. ElCee*

    How do you deal when a liberal WFH policy, that is respected and used well by 99% of the staff, has one notorious abuser? This person will stay home and enter their hours as time worked when they have run out of leave, but will not work, take work home, or respond to calls when “working from home” (they do not own a home computer, either).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That person’s manager needs to address it with them, make it clear what changes they need to see, watch carefully, and revoke the arrangement for that person if needed. Or if it’s as bad as it sounds here, revoke it immediately and consider whether this person is even right for the job, given their work ethic.

      1. AMT*

        Totally agree. I sense that ElCee is worried about fairness, but it’s not unfair when there’s a damn good reason you shouldn’t be allowed to work from home. Fair, in this case, is refusing to reward bad behavior.

    2. Xarcady*

      You could make having a home computer one of the requirements for working from home. As well as returning calls made to their home on a day they are working from home.

      Also, if they are not working, then they probably aren’t making their goals, whatever they are. This should be a key point on their performance review, and in one on ones, etc.

      You might not be able to prove that they are sitting at home sipping cocktails all day, but you should be able to prove that their work isn’t getting done. Address that, and the rest will fall into place.

      Working from home is a privilege one earns, not a right.

  4. hayling*

    I am so happy I work for a company with a liberal WFH policy. They like us to be in the office for the most part, but trust us to WFH responsibly when needed/wanted. Then again this is San Francisco, so things are a little different here.

    At my last job, you had to have really extenuating circumstances to WFH even once in a while. I used to lead these crazy quarterly planning meetings off-site that would take all morning. I would spend the rest of the day compiling notes and calendars. I finally convinced my boss that I could do this way more efficiently at home and he agreed, since the office was too distracting.

    1. Windchime*

      I’ll be interested to know how that goes for you, Elizabeth. I had a co-worker who left and went to a new workplace with a very liberal work-at-home policy. For several months, his “home” was in Brazil, and then he went to Spain for at least another month. All while doing his software development job. Seemed pretty cool to me!

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I hope it works okay. I didn’t know I would be going back so soon, and I didn’t want to leave my month end for everybody else to do. Since half the time I never even talk to anyone when I’m in the office, and there isn’t much that is urgent, even the six-hour time gap shouldn’t make a big difference. I just have to figure out when to log on–except for the concert and the meetup, I don’t have concrete plans even for my research.

        1. Cath in Canada*

          I have a friend who runs his own property development business. He’s rarely actually at one of his work sites, so he once decided to take off for a resort in Mexico for a week and see if anyone noticed. He answered emails from the bar, and took phone calls on the beach. Not a single employee seemed to notice!

    2. Revanche*

      Best of luck with that!

      I’ve worked from overseas on more than one occasion and we didn’t worry about syncing up for meetings during those periods, we were able to just focus on the work getting done.

  5. Darcy*

    I love working from home because I do work that requires periods of intense concentration that are frequently interrupted in the office. At both my current job and my last one, there were a few people who made a case and were allowed to work from home, and each time at least one person used it as replacement for child care. Their managers were/are aware and allowed it to happen. It’s drives me nuts because I know it gives telecommuting a bad rap, and that makes upsets me because I don’t want to lose the privilege since I’m so much more productive at home (and my kids have always gone to daycare when I’ve worked from home.)

    1. E.T.*

      I would like to respectfully disagree with your (and also Alison’s) viewpoint that work from home can’t be a substitute for daycare. I work from home, and I actually have a one year old that is not in daycare due to health issues. Previously I didn’t work from home, but when it became a reality that my baby was not thriving in daycare, I told my manager I needed to resign to stay at home with him. Surprisingly, my manager was the one who actually proposed that I work from home and take care of my baby at the same time. As long as I got my work done, he didn’t care if I took my baby around the block in the morning or needed time in the afternoon to rock him to sleep. Of course, the premise is that I have to actually do my work, which sometimes mean I log back on at 8:00 at night after the baby falls asleep to finish work.

      You mentioned above that the managers of these people who worked from home as a replacement for child care allowed the situation to happen. To me, that means one of two things: (1) like my situation, the person who worked from home was performing well, and thus the manager didn’t care if they had had children at home because it was not impacting their work or productivity, or (2) if the children were consistently impacting the employee’s work or productivity at home and the manager did not do anything about it (by either revoking the work from home privilege or terminating the employee), then it is partially the manager’s fault for not managing, and may even be obvious indicator of how a manager is NOT managing his/her team.

      I feel that work from home is exactly a situation where only a competent manager can assess if it is working for the employee and the company. As long as it is understood that work from home is a privilege earned by the employee, and that the employee isn’t negatively impacting work for other coworkers, it really isn’t any other coworkers’ business regarding the arrangements between the manager/company and the work from home employee, especially whether the work from home employee has child care arranged or not.

    2. DorothyH*

      Having a child at home shouldn’t be a deal breaker and it shouldn’t give WFH a bad reputation. It’s lack of productivity, caused by a variety of factors, that causes WFH to fail. Wanting to bond with your child in a corporate environment that is hostile to new parents is prevalent and not unique, and here is an awesome opportunity to do it. Or, workplaces could provide appropriate parental leave or on-site childcare.

  6. anonagain*

    I know some people have WFH as a disability accommodation, so I assume in that case managers would evaluate it like any other accommodation rather than as a workplace perk/privilege/etc. Is that correct?

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