by Julie K. Miner
If the last few weeks have taught us anything instructive, and may even contain a silver lining, it’s that telecommuting – working from home – is here to stay and will most likely increase in scope and frequency in the years to come as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Twenty or thirty years ago, working from home was code for not doing any work while being arms-length from a phone just in case it happened to ring. But with cell phones, email, WiFi, text messaging, facetime, Skype, and now Zoom, working remotely has become easier and more prevalent in our society as employees and employers continue to struggle with the ongoing quest to find a competitive work/life balance. It has helped employees cope with the growing demands of being on the clock at all hours of the day and has allowed employers like my partner and me to offer a competitive leg-up with little to no downside to our employees.
In 2012, Gallup reported that 39 percent of Americans worked from home during some portion of their workweek. Eight years later, that number is closer to 45 percent of the national workforce operating from places other than a traditional office space one or more days a week. In less than a decade, many have replaced water coolers for kitchen sinks and suit pants for sweatpants.
Given the impact of the last two weeks – and most likely the next few weeks or months – that trend is only likely to increase as more and more companies, regardless of size, have enacted a work from home policy at the behest of mayors, governors and the federal government. Especially now with many shelter-in-place orders and closure of non-essential businesses throughout the country, almost every job that can be done from home is being done from home.
Perhaps, just as suddenly, many CEOs have discovered their businesses keep on functioning and (with the exception of the last week) prospering, even when their employees are out of the office. Conference calls still go on as planned, meetings (the ones that couldn’t be emails, of course) are now held online, and documents are reviewed and edited just as they were two weeks ago. Business is going on as normal as it can, given the circumstances.
When we started J Strategies, a full-service communications and public affairs consulting firm, my partner and I worked exclusively from our homes. Over time, as we added staff and clients, we maintained that ability, realizing it helped financially as well as emotionally.
Even as we grew, adding more employees and leasing office space, we ensured the ability of our staff to work from home at least one day a week (more if needed) would be preserved. Now, with approximately 20 employees in New York City, Albany, and Boston, the entire firm works from home every Friday, 52 weeks a year, answering emails and phone calls, and remaining just as available to clients as we would in an office environment during business hours (and beyond).
The rest of the week, if our employees have legitimate reasons (such as a doctor’s appointment or childcare issue) that would keep them from commuting into the office, we make every attempt to comply. We have found that by saying yes to these requests, it has made our staff more responsive to the demands of the job, not less. Emails and calls from managers are answered almost immediately when employees are home and client communications are tended to just as fast.
We are living in stressful times, to be sure. With the experiences of the last 10 years working from home, our firm is at a competitive advantage when it comes to weathering the storm in which we all now find ourselves. Many will not be as lucky.
Now, thousands of American companies are finding through a kind of baptism by fire that employees working from home is more than just tenable – it’s just as productive as it could be in another environment.
One day, weeks or maybe even months from now, the American workforce will come out of this experience stronger and more resilient than ever before. Hopefully, the stereotypes about working from home will be gone and employers will have more open minds about what constitutes a productive workday – regardless of location.
Julie K. Miner is a Managing Partner and CEO of J Strategies, a communications and government relations firm with offices in Albany, New York City, and Boston. She previously served as a regional director to US Senator Charles E. Schumer.