7 Ways to Get Employees to Prefer Commuting to Telecommuting

Most employees hate open plan offices, which accounts for part of the growing demand (among workers) for the right to work from home. However, many companies (e.g. Yahoo, Bank of America, Aetna, IBM) are now forcing employees to commute to work by canceling or limiting their work-from-home policies.

This is stupid for a number of reasons: 1) telecommuters are more productive, 2) open plan offices actually reduce collaboration, 3) commuting accelerates global warming, 4) open plan offices discourage diversity, etc., etc. What’s abysmally stupid, though, is cramming a commute down the employees’ throats.

Rule of thumb: any “productivity improvement” that requires punishing non-compliance is idiotic by definition. A case in point is CRM, which companies have been strong-arming salespeople to use for decades and which still (and consequently) has the highest failure rate of any form of office automation.

But that’s not what this column is about.

Let’s suppose, just for the sake of argument, that there might actually be some substantial value to having your employees working in the same physical area. If that were true, what steps could a company take that would cause employees to willingly prefer commuting over telecommuting?

Three basic strategies come to mind:

  1. Replicate in the office the positive things that people like about working from home.
  2. Provide positive things in the office that people can’t get from working at home.
  3. Remove from the office the negative things that make people want to work from home.

Note that none of these strategies involves throat-cramming. And it should go without saying that any policy that REQUIRES commuting (“Achtung! No more verk from home!”) will fail to make commuting more palatable.

With the above in mind, how might a company implement those three strategies? Here’s my list:

1. “Pixar plan” offices

Let’s start with the big ticket item. Open plan offices–which employees universally hate–are a primary reason employees want to work from home. Employees want a private, distraction-free place to work; open plan designs don’t cut it.

What DOES work, however, is the design that’s worked for Pixar which consists of private, self-decorated offices along with a common area that’s primarily recreational. Yes, it will cost more than your bargain basement open plan. But it will be worth it.

2. Highest quality, ergonomic chairs

Most people (and companies for that matter) scrimp when it comes to office chairs. That’s “penny-wise and pound-foolish” because the inevitable back problems will cost more than the extra cost to buy a top-line ergonomic chair.

A Herman Miller Aeron chair ($500-$1,000) is a pleasure to sit it and helps your back relax–an incentive to commute, especially if all you have in your home office is the typical $100 piece of crap bought on sale at Staples.

3. Fire all the assh*les

A big reason people like working from home is the distance isolates them from the bullies, harassers, and whiners that make office work so unpleasant. An assh*le in the workplace isn’t a “bad apple” that can be ignored. He’s more like a dead mouse in the milk jug.

When a company gets rid of the assh*les (especially the bossholes), those who remain are more likely to become friends who enjoy working with and around each other. Humans love being part of a community… as long they aren’t forced to cope with jerks every day.

4. Short, focused meetings

A huge advantage of working from home is the ability to avoid boring meetings or, worst case, monitor those meeting whilst doing something else, like watching Netflix in a window with a single earpod. (On your camera, you’ll appear *really* interested in the meeting!)

Keeping meetings brief, infrequent, and to the point removes a major motivation to work at home. This isn’t brain science: no meetings without agendas, no PowerPoint (ever), start every meeting with everyone reading a document, etc.  Just do it.

5. Make naps OK

The beneficial effect of power naps, like greater creativity and better focus when working–is well-documented. What may be more important, though, is that one measure of success and happiness is the ability to take a nap whenever you want one.

Allowing and even encouraging people to take a mid-afternoon nap (like siesta time in Iberia) makes it easier for them to put in long hours during crunch time… and gives them one less reason to desire to work from home.

6. Liberal personal day policies

Let’s face it: the ability to run a quick errand or take mid-day doctor’s appointment is a huge advantage to working from home. It’s far easier to achieve some level of work/life balance if you have more control over how you use your time.

Giving employees the flexibility to take a few hours off when they feel the need gives them more control over their lives and therefore less likely to crave the freedom of working from home. 

7. Spectacularly good (free) coffee

Since I started with the big ticket item, I’ll end with the cheap and easy. In the US, at least, coffee is a big deal. Heck, many people spend upwards of $1,200 a year to drink a Starbucks every workday morning.

Since coffee vastly improves employee performance, it’s absolutely insane to provide crappy coffee (e.g. anything that comes pre-ground in a cartridge) when you can offer coffee that’s geometrically better than the stuff they can make at home.

I’ll end with a confession. If a company offered all of the above, even somebody like myself (who swore two decades ago I’d never work in an office again) would be tempted to start commuting again.

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