This Firm Saved $2.4 Million a Year By Letting Employees Work From Home
by Brendan Spiegel
By revamping their workplace and implementing a work-from-home policy, National Equity Fund has saved money, boosted productivity and improved morale.
Sixteen years ago, National Equity Fund, a nonprofit Chicago-based affiliate of an organization that works to create affordable housing options, made a major workplace change, shifting from a traditional office setting to an open-office plan.
“It changed the whole culture of the company,” says Gaylene Domer, VP of Facilities Management, who oversaw the shift and noted an improvement in communication across the board. But a decade-plus later, when Domer was set to redo the office space once again, she and her colleagues in management felt a more extensive change was in order.
Employee engagement had fallen; work wasn’t being completely as quickly and efficiently as management felt it could be; and the 176-person company was having some difficulty recruiting new employees. “There was a real sense that they needed to re-energize the workforce,” says Jim Ware, an independent consultant who has worked with NEF. After speaking with employees — many of whom reported their biggest complaint was the often epic commutes to downtown Chicago, sometimes as much as an hour and a half each way — Domer determined that what the company needed now was not just creativity in how the office was set up, but flexibility in where work is done.
“The shift that was needed,” says Ware, “was more cultural than anything else,” as there was some skepticism among supervisors that remote working would impede productivity. “One manager said, ‘how can we supervise them if we can’t see them?’” Domer recalls. “It’s hard to prove your productivity when you’re a knowledge worker.”
In response to these concerns, NEF established policies for how the work-from-home program would function and trained managers on how to supervise remote employees. They set some ground rules: employees can work from home one to three days a week, but specific arrangements must be made with their supervisor, to find the right fit for each job. The company also requires that remote workers get their jobs done from their homes, rather than a coffee shop or another location, so that they’re available for check-ins.
Today, 78 out of 176 employees work from home at least once a week, and Domer says that any supervisor skepticism has evaporated: “It changed the culture because people are so happy now and workers are more engaged.” Fears of decreased efficiency have not borne out; in fact, “Now people are saying, ‘we work more hours when we’re at home.’”
They’re also happier doing so. “If they get tired in the afternoon, they can take a walk and then finish their work in the evening,” says Domer. If they have a family commitment, they can fit that into their workday. “I’ve even had people say, ‘you saved my marriage.’”
Notably, the work-from-home program was tied to a revamp of NEF’s in-person facilities, in order to tap into the re-envisioned workforce’s needs. The company moved across the street and redesigned the new space with different kinds of workstations and furniture for different jobs. Finance department employees, for example, sit in a row setup that allows for easy communication with no panels separating them, while HR is in a more private space. Standup desks are provided for employees who prefer them, and rather than private offices, they share 13 glass-walled rooms that can be used by anyone from the CEO to entry-level employees, on the days that they’re working from the office.
“You see more communication going on,” says Domer, because of the thought put into the physical workspaces, but also “because people like the company.”
Beyond boosting employee engagement, the change was a financial win for the company, as the revamped space is 7,000 square feet smaller than their old home, saving $2.4 million a year in rent. Management reports they’ve been able to hire employees who are the cream of the crop, and those already on board are more likely to want to stay.
“When you start treating employees like they are adults, offering them trust and responsibility,” says Domer, “that’s going to work well for everyone.”