Photo: Mackenzie Kosut

Working from home can look drastically different depending on one’s home situation. If employees are asked to work remotely more permanently, it will warrant careful consideration and pro-active support of employee needs on a case-by-case basis to ensure that engagement, performance and overall career progression are adequately supported.

Picture it: one team member is working cross-legged on his bed all day because it’s the only private spot available in his tiny shared downtown rental, while his colleague works from her stunning sunroom-turned-office overlooking the garden of her large rural property. It’s likely neither abode was selected with a home office as a top consideration, but here they are, making the best of a situation neither chose.

I’d venture to guess the former will show up overall less polished on video calls and feel spent sooner each day, while the other will benefit from all the ingredients needed to be clear-headed, creative, and show up “like a leader”. Fast forward in time, and there’s a threat that working from home will influence their individual career paths significantly. There will be a new brand of executive presence in a world of exclusively on-screen interactions, and I’m sure that no amount of decisive communication style or the like will make up for cluttered backgrounds and double-chin-accentuating camera angles. It used to be that you had to consciously manage how people perceived you through your communication, dress, dedication… all those things you brought to the office. Now, the office itself is part of how one shows up.

In addition, it’s not just the physical space, but the emotional environment that may vary greatly from one person to the next, and will have an impact that employers must acknowledge. Of course, right now there are school-age kids in many homes hanging out during work hours, but that won’t always be the case. Beyond this temporary situation, the home is simply a happier place for some than for others. Imagine being in close quarters with an aggressive spouse, a noisy neighbour, or an endless renovation. If people have “baggage”, whatever that might look like, home is where they keep it. With a personal space, comes issues which are sure to distract, even if they’re not serious ones.

In the interview process, candidates aren’t all looking for funky furniture, an awesome coffee corner and enviable lunches-on-site in their office assessment. Some are just looking for a comfortable break from being home; a calm and tidy place to do great work.

I picture a future where established companies that declare a leap to “all virtual”, settles into either: a) some form of optional office space in which to work occasionally, b) offering a significant subsidy to make the home office a happy workplace for all, or c) granting the option of renting a local co-working space that fits the bill.

In the meantime, leaders should be highly aware of the WFH discrepancies, and consider new actions for this new cultural norm. I believe this warrants:
Surfacing discussions about unconscious bias. Let people know their dress and background matter. I consider this valuable “tell it like it is” mentoring.
Suggesting specific guidelines for video backgrounds. Related to the first point, this element can elicit subconscious judgement, triggered by the lake view or the pile of laundry in the background. The office has a dress code, so why not a video call code?
Outlining best practices for work spaces: a desk, some plants, daylight. Encourage creativity, and pay for it if you can. Try to get around being entirely Even-Steven. Some will need more help than others.
Continually asking your employees, “How’s your energy?” “How are you feeling about the work?” “How comfortable is your space?” Propose what might help: a great little chair and table for the balcony? A standing desk? An extra lamp? Get personal. I mean, you’re already in their house with them.
Purchasing everyone the best equipment the organization can afford: laptop, headphones, etc….
Splurging a bit. If the organization’s going to be saving money on real estate, spend on fun little perks that cost much less than a fancy office. Arrange a favourite healthy lunch to be delivered on Fridays. Give everyone a Starbucks gift card. Send flowers for their workspace. Maybe a music streaming subscription, or semi-annual off-sites that are a little nicer than usual.
Stopping the video call snowball. Get off your chairs and take walking meetings often, especially on lovely days. Everyone benefits from movement and fresh air.
Promoting and celebrating the flexibility of being at home. Remind people to use their built-in home perks! Talk about marinating meat for dinner on your break, putting more pieces into that family puzzle while you listen in on the conference call, play video games or run to Costco at lunch, roll around with your dog intermittently.

Although there are challenges to the all-virtual workplace, there are also opportunities to make it even more effective than the alternative, and countless employees who would love the opportunity to work from home permanently. For this reason, experts such as Amy Laski are putting up their hands help leaders build thriving virtual organizations. As the founder of Felicity PR, a communications and content agency that has been successfully all-virtual for more than eight years, Amy started the consultancy Felicity Works on the encouragement of her network, and now leads businesses step-by-step through adopting best practices borne from first-hand experience.

Whether supporting employees optimally takes consulting experts or re-working budgets, at the heart of what’s most important for formerly office-centric organizations is ensuring that all employees are in a comfortable physical space and positive headspace when they turn their minds to contributing to the business.