Monday, February 4, 2019

Closing the Office vs. Working From Home

This past week brought the Polar Vortex to the Midwest and with it record-breaking temperatures well below zero. In my neck of the woods it was immediately preceded by a massive snowstorm, which dumped up to a foot of snow during what we would normally consider our morning and late afternoon commutes.

It was a kind of one-two punch, and it caused me to first rethink and then abandon my association's "office closing" policy.

Long ago, when I was first hired to run my current association, there was no such policy. That first winter, when the snow started coming down, and schools and other businesses were closing, my employees had to call me to find out if our office was going to close, too. It only took one snowstorm for me to realize how inefficient that system was. What we needed, I thought, was a consistent standard. Some external indicator that, when it occurred, everyone knew that the office would be closed that day.

We chose the closing of our local city school system. If the Milwaukee Public Schools closed (which they did three or four times a year, and usually with at least night-before advance warning) then our office would close, too. No need to call the boss. No need for the boss to call everyone and let them know.

For a while, it worked fairly well. There were only two wrinkles that had to be ironed out. First, sometimes MPS closed not because there was a ton of snow making travel hazardous but because it was bitterly cold outside and they didn't want students standing outside waiting for their buses to pick them up. We decided that was less of a concern for our staff, so we had to start clarifying why MPS was closing before knowing what to do. Was it because the roads were bad? Or because the temperature was below zero?

Second, what did we expect staff to do on these days when the office was closed? Closed, in my mind, meant closed, so that there was no expectation that phones would be answered or that staff could be reached. The outgoing message on our office voicemail would be changed to reflect that situation, but we still expected people to work, if they could, on appropriate projects at home. When I first started twelve years ago, that could be simple or hard depending on each person's technical set-up, but as the years passed, "working from home" became easier and easier. Our email is now in the cloud and our VPN can get us into our file server so, as long as a staffer has a computer and an internet connection, they can actually get quite a bit done while the office is "closed."

Now, fast forward to this past week. Monday is the major snowstorm, MPS closes, and so do we. No problem there. But on Tuesday the temperature plummets and the roads are still not cleared from the pounding we took the day before. MPS closes, but why did they close? Is it because the roads are bad? Or because the temps broke the thermometer? Or both? And how do we interpret our policy in each situation.

What I had thought was straightforward suddenly revealed itself as wonderfully complex. Everyone showed up for work that day, so, around our staff meeting table, we stripped our policy down to its bones and tried to figure out what to do next. And in doing so, we realized so how much had changed in the last twelve years, and perhaps nothing more than our ability to work productively from home.

Twelve years ago most people had dial-up internet in their homes and we had a stable of laptops that we loaned out to staff when they traveled. Today, everyone had a company laptop and most had blazing fast home internet connections (the better to watch streaming video services with). Working from home was much more realistic today than it was twelve years ago. So much so that we had recently moved to a flexible schedule where everyone was working from home one day a week -- winter, spring, summer and fall.

And it was that realization that helped me abandon the archaic idea of an "office closing" policy entirely. Why should the office close at all? It wasn't "closed" on the scheduled day we were all working from home. We managed to answer the general line, our direct lines, send just as much email, and get a lot of things done on these days. Now, and in the future, whenever the Milwaukee Public Schools closed -- because of snow or because of frigid temperatures or both -- we would not close the office. We would just declare a "work from home" day.

And that's exactly what we did when MPS closed for Wednesday and Thursday of Polar Vortex week. It was 22 degrees below zero outside, but I and my staff were all warm within our respective homes, accessing our file server, responding to our emails, and conducting our important meetings via conference call.

Take that, Polar Vortex.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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