As many employers struggle with whether to allow employees to continue working from home, Arthur Jackson, president and chief consultant at ENPM Inc., has a message for HR and other company leaders: "If you're scared to have your most talented performers out of your sight, they will take their talents to somebody else."
"Your very best, your brightest—they will go to an organization that values them and demonstrates that they value them by allowing them to decide where they want to work, when they want to work and, a lot of times, how they want to work," Jackson said on April 18 at the SHRM Talent Conference & Expo 2023 in Orlando, Fla.
His warning comes after a dramatic rise in remote work over the past few years. Telework was already gaining popularity pre-pandemic, but the onset of COVID-19 massively disrupted traditional workplaces and led to a giant shift in which remote work became widely accepted and embraced. However, three years after the start of the pandemic, some employers—including Apple, Amazon, the Walt Disney Co. and even the federal government—are requiring employees to come back to the office for the majority of the week, often to the disappointment of their workers.
But a rigid approach to telework is a surefire way to lose out on talent, Jackson said. Offering remote work opportunities is especially important now, as the unemployment rate remains low, the number of employees with family and dependent care responsibilities rises, and an increasing number of workers want the option.
"Look at telework as a strategic business practice," he said. "And that practice attracts some of the best people, that practice retains those best people and that practice increases productivity."
However, Jackson said it's important to note that remote work isn't ideal for all workers. Telework is a privilege, and organizations and company leaders need to pay attention to who is succeeding with the arrangement and who isn't. Companies shouldn't be shy about setting up telework as an experiment at first. Many employees might thrive working from home, but others might not—and leaders may have to tell some people they don't qualify to work from home.
"As an HR leader, you have to be prepared to pull the plug," Jackson said. "You have to look at what's best for the organization and the people in it."
As much as telework policies can be a boon to organizations, they will only be beneficial if HR and company leaders put in the work to make the practice a success. That means that simply setting a policy and forgetting it isn't an option.
So how can company leaders make telework work? Jackson offered several tips.
Develop a new attitude and culture. "The fundamental challenge around telework is cultural," he said. "Some employees, like Baby Boomers, are traditional and have always done work one way, and they want to continue doing work one way." But the idea of work has changed, and that progress needs to be accepted, including the prevalence of teleworking. Jackson noted that HR leaders are in an important position to shift attitudes: "As human resources professionals, you've got to change the attitude of the people in your organization if you expect to make it work."
Managers especially need to adjust to the new reality of work and change how they manage and connect with their employees if they aren't working together in an office setting. A lot of that comes down to trusting workers. "Employees don't need micromanagement; they need leadership," Jackson said.
Invest in training. Organizations need to train employees and leaders about how to make remote work successful. That can involve a variety of tools and technology—from Zoom and Microsoft Teams to shared drives—but it also includes learning how to connect and bond with colleagues. That's especially important for managers tasked with connecting with their workers. "Telling people they can go home and telework and not giving them training on how to pull that off effectively is going to create a nightmare," Jackson said.
Build a sense of communication and trust. This goes beyond having a weekly team meeting to check in, Jackson said. Instead, use technology to see people as often as possible.
Focus on collaboration and communication. "Make sure you're operating on a platform where [employees] can get together and share their work," he said, noting that platforms such as SharePoint or Microsoft OneDrive should be set up for remote workers.
Tool up. Simply offering technology, tools or apps is not enough, Jackson said. Company leaders must ensure that employees are trained so they can effectively use the tools. And the training shouldn't be just a brochure or e-mail with written instructions; it should also include videos or seminars so people can learn in different ways. "You can't naturally assume people know how to use something," he said.
Lead with a focus on outcomes. Teleworkers need to know upfront what kind of outcomes managers and company leaders are looking for. "You want to keep employees responsible," Jackson said, noting that remote workers will benefit from deadlines and activity reports just like in-office workers.