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The Work From Home Question

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The Work From Home Question

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Everyone is talking about the Yahoo! memo ending work from home for employees. When a company is in crisis, as Yahoo! is, actions like these, that don’t seem to directly attack the decline, are ripe for ridicule and criticism. There has been speculation as to whether this is simply a layoff in disguise, i.e., a stunt to get people to resign voluntarily and reduce expenses. Though, even that doesn’t make much sense when you learn about the damning statistic, i.e., only about 300-500 (2-4%) workers are remote. Getting those workers to be incrementally productive or getting some of them to quit would hardly make any significant effect on the company’s bottom line. So why do it?

I am reminded of an article on Rands in Repose about telecommuting (my comments here). In the short-term, it seems to be a win-win for both employer and employee, but soon enough (within a year), the typical remote employee is on the verge of quitting or being fired. And it really has nothing to do with productivity, but simply that the employee has not been able to communicate well to eliminate the friction and trust issues caused by working remotely.

Telecommuting is a great example of where perception is everything and the facts do not matter. For example, think about the following situations, assuming you are a manager:

  1. Employee X never sends an email before 10 am and never sends an email after 4 pm.
  2. You called Employee X’s phone three different times on the same day and nobody picked up, but you got a return call five minutes later each time.
  3. Employee X did not respond to your instant message.

Now let us assume that Employee X works in the office. You know, having seen Employee X, that she comes to work at 8:30 am and leaves at 5 pm. She is in the building and usually at her seat except for meetings or breaks. So Item (1) never registers unless you are actively looking for it. Item (2) is irritating, but you assume you called at a wrong time. You may assume that item (3) was because she hadn’t turned on her IM. Under normal circumstances, you would not assume the person was slacking off.

But with a remote worker, situations (1) to (3) go to the “slacking off” assumption very, very quickly. Employee X has to be responsive to incoming communication (phone calls, emails, instant messages) much more than a worker at the office. Even a true and legitimate reason like a bathroom break can be used only so often for lack of frequent communication. So you have to work extra hard to maintain the same level of trust, especially if you are someone who has guilt issues with people accusing you implicitly of laziness. Having a manager with whom you have a good rapport and trust improves things, but only to an extent. There is a much more fundamental process at play.

One truth is that everyone misses deadlines now and then. Also true is that your manager is not an independent entity, but also has his or her manager to answer to, including a customer to whom things have been promised. So when you miss a deadline, you are putting your manager in a difficult spot. And the manager would like an answer about why that happened. You can supply the reasons, but the manager makes the final analysis of where things went wrong. And usually what people are drawn to are major differences. In an environment where only part of the workforce is remote, any mistake by the remote worker is analyzed with comparisons to the at-office workers. And the analysis is that the problem happened because the person was not in the office.

If this seems silly, think of the stigma attached to the "9 to 5" programmer: the idea that the person who stays a few minutes longer than necessary loves their work more (and by extension, is more capable and productive irrespective of actual work produced) than the person who is watching the clock. Blaming the remote worker is simply an extension of the same concept. It is easy to see why this idea is popular. Through most of history, working harder (in the fields, pastures or elsewhere) brought greater reward. Knowledge work is not like that, but ideas rooted in our cultural thinking die hard.

Of course, Yahoo! should know better. But since they should have known better about a lot of things in the last decade, this is not particularly surprising even with a new CEO.


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