Elon Musk recently told his employees at Tesla that they were required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week. Where actual colleagues are located, Musk specified in his email.

“Not some remote pseudo office.”

Musk continued to say that the more senior the employee, the more visible their presence must be.

Musk acknowledged that though companies don’t require the same from its employees, “When was the last time they shipped a great new product?” Tesla has and will create and actually manufacture the most exciting and meaningful products in the world, and this will not happen by phoning it in, Musk said. Any Tesla employees who do not meet these requirements will be assumed to have resigned.

Does work from home (WFH) have a place in the HVAC industry? For HVAC companies who do offer WFH, how can they ensure productivity and maintain company culture? For those who don’t offer WFH, how can they still meet employees where they’re at?

“Cultures are developed when like-minded people are in concert and communion with one another in order to help lead and grow and organization.”
Wade Mayfield
President, Thermal Services

To WFH or not to WFH

Wade Mayfield, president of Thermal Services in Omaha, Nebraska, agrees with Musk’s overall leadership standpoint: You have to be present to lead.

“Cultures are developed when like-minded people are in concert and communion with one another in order to help lead and grow an organization,” Mayfield said.

James Leichter, HVAC industry consultant and president of Aptora, a software company that makes enterprise-level accounting software for the HVAC industry, agrees that leaders have to be present.

“They need to be walking around and installing and maintaining company culture, keeping everybody in a good mood and removing … things that fall through the cracks if you’re not walking around making eye contact with people,” Liechter said.

Kirsten Weeks, coach/consultant at Go Time Success Group, specifically coaching on ServiceTitan, understands the necessary place of WFH options in our industry, but it’s not her preference.

“I think when you have people together in a space, understanding your goals and values and working off of each other and learning from each other­­ actively in person, I just think it’s something that is so invaluable. I don’t know how you can top that scenario.”

Yet even so, HVAC companies do have various WFH policies in place. For those who don’t, they’ve adjusted to the new way of work in different ways.

There’s companies like Aptora, who allow any employee but its head coaches to WFH if it can be done productively. Or there are companies like Thermal Service, who have no WFH policies and all employees report to the office on a daily basis.

Weeks doesn’t think HVAC companies who push WFH necessarily have a result of better customer service. In fact, she’s seen it go the opposite way.

Which is Mayfield’s concern. It’s easy to be brash behind a computer screen. Without some sort of personal connection, someone might think someone’s an “ass,” and that’s no good for company culture, she said.

Weeks has a hard time making a connection with her coworkers or feeling supported by them when she works from home. Though she speaks to her coworkers every day, “It is still a huge difference in what company morale could be if we were all in the office.”

Leichter said that employers can’t be sitting around waiting for their employees to change.

“You’re either going to change people or people are going to change you,” she said. “Employers are going to have to accommodate the way people want to work. They're just going to have to find a way to do it.”


Work with What Ya Got

For someone like Mayfield who doesn’t offer WFH, he’s adjusted to how his employees want to work by creating an afternoon shift and a night shift. This way they were able to limit on-call and keep workers within an eight hour work day.

For those people who physically can’t work from home — like HVAC technicians — Liechter suggests trying really hard to keep them out of the office by dispatching them straight from home and then straight back home.

When it comes to allowing employees to WFH, most companies don’t have the proper tools to track them. The key to this, both Leichter and Weeks said, is having measurable key performance indicators (KPIs) in place that allow a company to know if a person is productive at home. Yet, many companies don’t have KPIs, so it’s hard to know if their employees are productive or not.

One suggestion Leichter has to create more WFH options within HVAC requires a new different approach. Instead of one tech, one truck, why not more than one tech to one truck?

“There are people who are retired that would come back to work two afternoons a week. Most employers would never thing of giving a vehicle to someone for just two afternoons a week, but then they might have a younger kid who wants two afternoons a week off.”

While Weeks doesn’t think that having 100% of employees WFH is necessary or beneficial for the industry, she thinks there should be some sort of balance, like a hybrid — something like three days in the office and two days from home.


The Future of Work

Weeks is betting that the younger generation coming up will force the HVAC industry toward WFH options. Now that people recognize that WFH is offered at most businesses, it’s only a matter of time until more HVAC companies start to do this.

“I think there is a huge opportunity being presented to us,” Weeks said. Companies can implement a failsafe way to WFH in case an employee has an emergency and can’t make it into the office. It’s a chance to make employees’ lives easier and ensure businesses aren’t scrambling because workers can’t or won’t come into the office. However, she cautioned, making a 100% switch over to WFH “provides an opportunity for your businesses to lose the base and infrastructure it was built on.”

Even for those who don’t offer WFH, the culture of this industry has had to and will continue to have to change. Leichter mentioned the old carrot-and-stick metaphor for the use of reward and punishment in training.

“The old days of me telling you what to do, and threatening you with your job, those are gone,” Leichter said. “The head coach doesn't use the stick to get people in line, they use the carrot. And the last option is the stick.”

“I had to change my outlook on the workforce expectations and what our culture needed to look like to attract a good workforce,” Mayfield said. Part of that was creating a softer, kinder, more fun culture that caters to the younger workforce.

“Your culture has to change: food days; breakfast; ‘How, how you doing? I love seeing you today.’ Instead of, ‘Hey you idiot, go pick up that bucket and carry it over here.’”

The sort of upbringing he had, the younger generation won’t put up with — “and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”