How do you deal with the question “can I work from home?” and do it well?

I think it’s a difficult one to get right, whether the person asking the question is a known and trusted colleague or someone new, asking in the middle of an interview.

The company I work for has a great reputation for flexible working, and it attracts people to come work for us but that perception can be different from reality for some people can make it a difficult question to answer.

Saying no to someone’s request can lead to anything from a few minutes’ minor upset to complete disengagement, while saying yes can also lead to anything from minor upset – when they realise how terrible it is being locked in a house alone all day – to complete disengagement.

As a manager of just 8 months’ standing, neither is something I’m wanting to risk.

The problem with ‘working from home’ is that everyone, and everyone’s situation, is different. Everyone copes differently, needs different things and has different things and those can all make working from home a terrible idea.

While I’m awkward enough to need a full desk, monitor, keyboard mouse and so on to be able to be productive, I’m also lucky enough to have just that setup at home. I’m also obsessive enough about the risk of unexpected hot-desking that I carry my entire desk around with me in my bag.

So, other than the obvious advantage of avoiding 4 hours of train journey into and back out of London, when I work from home I’m just doing that – working, from home.

So I love working from home myself and my team are clearly going to notice I’m doing it, so what to do? I reckon I’ve nailed it.

Faced with my self-devised rules, the true answer to “Can I work from home?” is actually just matter of self-discovery. Because not being very good at working from home isn’t very much fun and no one volunteers to keep doing something they don’t enjoy.

After all, all I really want as a manager is not to get moaned at (particularly by my manager) about what my team are – or are not – doing.

We’ve all had to deal with people who ‘work’ from home and don’t respond to emails, calls or much else until 8 or 9pm and only then to shirk things off until tomorrow. The people who treat working from home as an excuse to do less because they can’t be seen.

I can’t help but wonder why their manager lets them get away with it – and just like you, I don’t want to be that manager. I think the approach to answering the question ‘can I work from home?’ matters an awful lot, regardless of the eventual outcome.

That’s because I’ve noticed that wherever there are people ‘working’ from home who don’t seem to be, it’s because they’ve never had that conversation. Working from home wasn’t offered, it was expected – compulsory even.

With everyone still being different last time I checked, that is always going to mean some people who shouldn’t work from home are effectively forced to. People who should, during a conversation where they asked ‘can I work from home?’ have realised the answer is no.

To me, ‘can I work from home?’ is a question for yourself, of your abilities, and not of your manager’s tolerance for it. A manager’s job is just to lay down some rules and create an environment for the team to prosper.

So, here’s the deal I came up with: my team can work from home whenever they like, without asking or actively letting me know. They just have to follow just a couple of rules.

I keep to the same ones, just to keep things fair.

The rules
  • You must be able to complete the sentence “I am working from home because…”. I don’t care what the last word is.
  • You must be in the office more often than you are out of the office. Average it out how you like.
  • You can’t decline an in-person meeting because you’re working from home
  • If I need you between 9am and 5.30pm then you better be there
  • There must be a clear indication of where you are in your calendar

If you trust your team (and if you don’t, why are they your team?) then letting them find out – and judge for themselves – whether they can work from home means everyone will be much happier and focused on getting things done.

Cover photo pic by David Martyn Hunt. Some rights reserved.

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