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How American businesses messed up work-from-home policies

Delphine Carter
Delphine Carter
As a natural leader, Delphine Carter is the founder and CEO of Boulo. Recognizing the potential for mothers in the workforce, she advocates for working mothers and caregivers, providing technology-driven recruitment solutions for employers and a community of support for would-be employees. Delphine Carter proudly serves on the board for Innovate Birmingham, is a Fellow for the Women’s Foundation of Alabama, an annual supporter of Childcare Resources of Alabama and volunteers at First Light.

The forced change that occurred in the first three days of the COVID pandemic lockdown represents a workforce transition three times greater than that of the 120-year Industrial Revolution. More than 100 years of office work tradition flew out the door as work-from-home policies and processes were slap-dashed together to enable some semblance of business continuity. Is it any wonder that those plans have been abandoned by organizations that—in a new environment and very different circumstances—now find fault with their own plans?

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The workforce has fundamentally changed. Having had a taste of flexibility and freedom, employees give more value to work/life balance and autonomy, and they are willing to switch jobs to get it. The time is now for HR executives to take a close look at WFH policies in a new light―and with employee needs in mind. Revising your policies can provide a more sustainable, equitable and productive workplace that helps attract and retain talent.

You can’t go back

For decades, Americans have been working in traditional offices from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Managers could manage at a glance by standing at the door in the morning to see who was on time, looking around during the day to see who was busy and calling out anyone who left early. These visual inputs signaled productivity. When employees were no longer in plain view, managers weren’t trained to adjust, and they lost trust.

A SHRM study indicates that 84% of American workers felt poorly trained managers were the cause of unnecessary work and stress. Those struggling managers didn’t get better while working remotely. More likely, they were subconsciously trying to recreate the in-person dynamic and return to what they knew.

Some companies are trying to soften the blow of returning back to the office by offering trendy incentives like casual office space, game tables, on-site gyms, happy hours or a fancy coffee machine. These are nice benefits for those who want to be in the office, but they fail to address the core reason why employees like remote work: control. When you’re trying to engage employees who want more power over their schedule and work, a ping-pong table isn’t going to cut it.

WFH failures

What went wrong? For many organizations, work from home kicked off without a plan in place around office communication. Teams felt disconnected. Employees lacked direct contact with each other and company leaders. Emails and texts became a poor substitute for hallway vibes and water cooler chatter. Many no longer felt like they understood the company’s direction or their place in it.

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Unprepared for the shift to remote work, companies also didn’t have metrics in place to know what “good” employees look like. This meant that at home, workers might be overworking or spinning on a hamster wheel with no sense of direction. Managers who needed proof of productivity often asked for cameras to be on during meetings, tracked the number of hours logged into the CRM, or installed keystroke monitors. They also missed the point. Modern work isn’t about looking busy for eight hours; it’s about achieving goals.

Making work-from-home police right

Pulling from across all industries, five best practices provide clear direction for WFH policies. But don’t let the WFH part fool you―these are good practices for a new era of work, regardless of where employees are located.

Determine the right metrics

Some positions lend themselves to performance metrics. In sales, you can see success by looking at weekly sales numbers. But what about a job in research, marketing or HR? That’s when managers need to help break jobs down to their core essence and determine what it looks like to be successful in each of those areas, taking into account ability, career goals and organizational goals.

Be intentional about communication

In the office, communication is casual. You might pick up gossip in the lunchroom or see a new client walking out of the conference room. With remote work, those communication moments need to be intentional. Your team may need to hold Zoom lunches to catch up, have a Slack channel on work tips or challenges and get weekly email updates on project status and new business.

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Being together didn’t keep people in the loop. Communication did. And being more intentional about communication makes it more equitable―allowing everyone to hear about new opportunities or solutions to common problems, rather than relying on casual relay.

Put key messages on repeat

Communication with today’s employees requires repetition. Saying or writing it once isn’t enough, regardless of where they are working. Communication experts tell us that we see 4,000-10,000 ads per day, receive 121 emails on average, have six phone calls and 32 texts, and spend 14 minutes on chat. That’s a lot of noise. Breaking through requires repetition. A good rule is the Rule of 7, with communicators explaining that delivering key messages about the company or expectations requires communicating seven times in seven different ways.

Encouraging bonds and communities

Remote work takes people away from their communities at work and distances them from opportunities to develop interpersonal relationships. However, companies can help foster these connections. For remote or hybrid workers, being paired with another employee can fill an important gap. Matching a new parent with a mom of three can support their return to work and help them navigate childcare issues. Giving a new employee a more experienced mentor can help smooth the learning curve.

Teaching the skills needed for remote success

Working remotely comes naturally to some. But for the rest, it’s important to teach and reinforce WFH skills. This might include general topics like creating a dedicated workspace, establishing routines and setting boundaries, or it could be specific skills for presenting on video calls or using new scheduling software. With three years of WFH experience, companies have identified problem areas and can teach solutions.


Remote work saves commuting time and costs, lessens the environmental impact, reduces office overhead costs, gives employees the control they value, and brings a new level of equity to the workforce. If your WFH policies haven’t worked the way you expected, now is a good time to revise them. Working remotely is a powerful benefit that helps attract and retain talent.