That Worked: HBR says to raise productivity, let more employees work from home. So we did.

photo credit: Macbook Air 2012 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Macbook Air 2012 via photopin (license)

When I became director of our university career center for graduate students & postdocs last October, one of my first goals was to establish a telework policy in the office.

It wasn’t just about staff working from home – it was about all of us, being able to get work done, wherever we are – at home, on one of our multiple campuses across the city, or at a conference. We not only needed to be able to get in touch with each other; we needed to be able to know when people were available. We also needed to be able to access our documents and resources, as well as the students and postdocs we serve.

There was also a benefit to being away from our office –  some of our projects require uninterrupted time to think, and a knock on the door,  a loud conversation in the hall, or getting stopped for a 20-minute conversation on the way to the restroom was affecting our concentration and our productivity.

When we started this, I read pro and con articles like 5 steps to telecommuting,  To raise productivity, let folks work from home, and Why this startup won’t let people work from home. Based on that, we decided to attack it as an office this way: We developed a single, key question as our mantra: Are you work ready? Every staff person – wherever they were – needed to ask themselves if they had the resources, information, and connections they needed to do the job they’ve been tasked to do. Presentation on campus A, but you’re on campus B and can’t make last minute copies because you don’t have printer access? We need to fix that because you aren’t work-ready. Need to get an answer from colleague A, but you’re not sure where they are today (on another campus, at a conference, at home?), or when to catch them? We need to fix that because you aren’t work-ready.

Throughout the week, people kept track of then they hit a roadblock that affected their productivity. At weekly staff meetings, we would then identify the issue, and troubleshoot solutions, so every week everyone got a little closer to being ‘work ready.’  Some solutions were small (moving to video conference all staff meetings, so people could call in and forgo traveling between campuses), and some were logistically more complicated (coordinating a way for every staff person to signal their availability every day). Now, it’s eight months later, and our resulting policies and processes we have today are good ones, and certainly more than 5 steps.

Overall, our telework policy has resulted in improved outcomes for us. We’re more productive, and our group’s morale is way, way up. People feel that they have some the flexibility and autonomy to manage their workload by making decisions that prevent them from burning out (For example, rather than someone racing to make a meeting – if we’re running late, we just video chat instead). While it’s not easy to develop an office-wide telework policy,  it is an interesting project and an important one. One odd thing I notice about many telework policies is that they have a narrow focus  – it’s about people working from home (rather than focused on ‘are people work- ready wherever they are’). A number of work-from-home policies operate under the assumption that telework/telecommuting is just a ‘perk’ to give high performers. But in our case, it’s so much more.

For example, one telework approach we adopted was the push to integrate both Jabber and Skype in our office. We use Jabber because it’s our university’s preferred tool, and Skype because students – and particularly our large number of international postdocs  – who we serve already use it. Adopting video conferencing helped us in two big ways:

  • Internally, staff are connected: We can have face time every day, with every staff person who’s on the clock. We can connect with each other on different campuses, as well as those of us who are working from home. In our case, we use the mood function in Skype to update our availability daily, and what times are optimal for someone to get in touch with us, so everyone on staff knows when is the best time that can talk to every other staff member. So staff person “Diana” will put their status update as “Wed, 6/15. Work from Home: Connect with me from 1-5pm”. This allows Diana to have protected time to work on her project in the morning, but everyone else knows that if they need to talk to Diana, she’s looking at emails, and responding to phone calls and Skype video chats, between 1-5pm. Every staff person does it, so we can all look in one place for this information. This approach allows staff to virtually ‘close their door,’ without feeling telepressure to immediately respond (a problem which renders the benefit of protected time, or that ‘perk’ feature for high performers moot ).

    For staff at work that just need to get some key information off of their to-do list, and move onto the next project, we use the Skype video message function. Staff at work can send a quick message or a 2-minute video summarizing what they need and then move on to their next project, confident that fellow staff will be looking at their message that same day. Also talking for 2 minutes on a video message is faster than taking twenty minutes to type out what you need to say in an email (which still slows down people’s productivity).Additionally, we now use Jabber bridge line (a common conference line where people call into the meeting) to have weekly staff meetings. Our staff are split between two main campuses across town.

    Now, staff stay where they are, update the agenda on a shared wiki, go to an assigned room on each campus that has video conferencing capabilities,  and everyone calls into our bridge line from wherever we are. We can also video in folks that are off campus. Staff just appreciate not having to spend an hour in travel time to travel to the other campus for a staff meeting. What’s interesting to me is how we’re focused on our work needs and styles, and then figure out how to make the technology’s functionality work for us – to be more collaborative, more efficient, and protect us from burnout.

  • Externally, students/postdocs appreciate the additional counseling appointment times: Students and postdocs – the populations we serve – can now schedule 8am and 5pm Skype appointments with a counselor. The counselor working from home that day might work from 8am-4pm, or from 10-6pm, which opens up an 8am and 5pm Skype appointment. We also have two part-time counselors who work on the east coast (we’re west coast), and over the next year we’re going to try to use that time differential to our benefit to open up more 7am appointments.

    While, many of our students/postdocs the appreciate not having to come into the office, due to confidentiality issues (students and postdocs don’t often have confidential space when on campus), we do provide a private space in our office with computer/Skype access to a student or postdoc meeting with one of our off-campus counselors, if they request it.Overall, it’s helped us address student/postdoc requests for early morning/evening appointments without additionally taxing the staff. Once again – the burnout factor, averted!

As I said, for us, developing a telework policy isn’t about ‘rewarding strong employees with a perk of working from home.’  It’s a collective effort in figuring out how to make ourselves ‘Work Ready’ no matter where we are. It’s also been an exercise in helping us figure out how we’re going to work together. Throughout the past year, every single staff person has grown to see the value in, and has benefited from, developing these policies. It’s just that life happens along with work. Staff have needed to meet the plumber at 2pm (and would now work from home all day, and just take their lunch from 2-3pm), or needed to take FMLA (and being able to telework meant they could limit the number of hours they took off, and still push through key projects, meaning that they didn’t get slammed with a mountain of work when they returned).

Because we can see the benefit, we’ve thrown all of our knowledge and creative problem-solving abilities to tenaciously figuring this out, collectively. Rather than organize an all-day MBTI ‘team building’ training at our Retreat Week, developing our telework policy has been a team building exercise over the entire year.

For those of you who don’t know university career services, two key metrics are about how many programs and how many counseling appointments you can offer in a year.  Our telework policy has positioned us to collaborate around programs and offer more 1:1 appointments a year. We’ve found that developing the level of tailored programming students/postdocs now need takes time and more than one brain – and now our group can constantly collaborate. Offering not just the number of appointments students/postdocs need, but at the time they want them, is now more of a possibility because we can offer 8am and 5pm appointments.

The point is that every student service office I know is hitting a pain point around the increased demand for services. It’s clear that our stakeholders: university leadership, faculty, students, postdocs, parents, etc. want us to play an expanded role; that of leader, presenter, counselor, resource developer, that few of us were prepared for in our academic training or previous experience.  Some of us are getting additional staff to tackle the increased demands, but many of us aren’t. But my sense is that the solution isn’t just going to be about having more staff. It’s going to be about two things:

  1. Our staff really figuring out that, “team members must rely on and coordinate with one another to ensure their own and their team’s success,” and centers (re)organizing themselves and their infrastructure to facilitate that level of collaboration and coordination, and teach their teams how to collaborate.
  2. Our staff identifying what are the new skills we need to have, and developing ourselves in those areas. Developing learning outcomes and assessments for our programs for those of us without any teaching pedagogy in our background, and best practices in counseling for those of us who entered the field without formal counseling training. Everyone having the strategic planning skills to develop and execute a slate of services, programs, initiatives and resources in partnership with academic departments, student groups, employers, and alumni. A certain threshold of knowledge about how Google Hangouts can facilitate collaborative efforts between staff, and programs to integrate alumni.

Based on what’s going on in the field, I think that the success of a university career center will stand or fall not on its big vision, a new program, or it’s innovative use of technology. It’s going to succeed or fail based on its ability to prevent our staffs from burning out from the demand for tailored programs, services, counseling and resources required really be of value.

Our telework policy is one step – one of many for us – that we’re taking to move in that direction. As for us? It worked.  The first year we increased our productivity by an increase of program offerings/co-sponsoring; we jumped from 114 to 229 programs within a year. So, we’re going to put this initiative icategoryn catagory.