My Perspective on Remote Work

WRITTEN BY Derek Huether

remote workThe proclamation by Marissa Mayer last month, informing Yahoo employees that working from home is no longer an option, really seemed to bring an important conversation front and center.

The memo that started this firestorm stated in part –

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices… We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together.”

I’ve worn a lot of hats over the years.  In each instance, there has been a common goal:  Be as successful as possible.  Being “successful” is unique to every situation so that’s why I include “as possible”.  But when you add happiness to the equation, what does that mean?

If you are in a job where you are rapidly iterating a product and continuously collaborating with others on your team, being face-to-face or side-by-side with your teammates will provide an opportunity to be as successful as possible.  Being collocated is no guarantee for success but being distributed (dislocated) is going to certainly limit your chances.  Leaders should focus actions more on making their companies, projects, or products successful and less on trying to make employees or teammates happy.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t be empathetic to the needs of others.  I’m just saying there comes a point when you need to look at the costs and the benefits of remote work.  If the team is not realizing its potential, because one or more of them are working remotely (because they want to and not because they have to) we have a misalignment of goals.  Why would they sacrifice potential success for their personal comfort?  Well, businesses are trying to find ways to incentivize their employees. They hope that by incentivizing then, they will be happier and more productive.  But see, that is part of the problem. There is a belief that the incentives will make them happy.  Happiness is one of the byproducts of satisfying work, which can be derived from feelings of mastery, autonomy, and purpose (link to talk by Dan Pink).  I believe (in some cases) the work-from-home incentives will have a negative affect.

When companies hire us, they are NOT hiring us to make people’s lives better.  They are hiring us because there is value locked up in these companies and they are unable to produce.  They are hiring us to help them unlock that value.  Period.

What’s one of the first things I would propose if I coached teams at Yahoo? Bring the team together, face-to-face or side-by-side.  The only thing I disagree with in the Yahoo memo experpt  is where it states “…we are all present in our offices…”  I propose they get out of the private offices and into a team space.

Balanced piece about the pros and cons of working at home on Fast Company

Image Credit: Pictofigo

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6 comments on “My Perspective on Remote Work”

  1. Jason VanGundy

    I agree. I think it’s a fair to require increased office / collocated / collab time. One thing that Mayer MUST do though, is make every effort to make the work environment as open and engaging as possible so employees want to be there. Yahoo may already be doing that, but it seemed lost in the stories I heard and read.

    Reply
    • Derek Huether

      Back in July 2012, I remember reading about Marissa Mayer’s first big move as Yahoo CEO was bringing a very Google-y perk to Yahoo’s Sunnyvale headquarters: Free food for all. This isn’t cheap PB&J! She budgeted $5000 per employee per year. So, she’s been planning this for a while. I’m with you. What other steps has she taken? I will bet that if Yahoo rebounds and they give her credit for it, someone is going to chronicle everything she did and we may see a wave of companies following her lead. I seriously hope the Yahoo’ers don’t go for offices and instead opt for engaging team spaces.

      Reply
  2. Matt

    Thanks for writing about this — I’ve been considering blogging about the topic of Marissa’s move at Yahoo. I personally think it was good thing for that company — this may be an edict that forces some great innovation in the way we work. We all know that face-to-face is the best way to promote team work, solve problems, and get things done. And let’s face it — with the exception of a couple tools — there are really not any top-notch tools that are inexpensive, intuitive, and pervasive enough that make remote face-to-face collaboration an easy part of the distributed the workforce. Maybe the message from Marissa should be, “if everyone want’s to go back to working remotely, innovate the next gen collaboration tool that becomes the – no brainer and reliable tool for remote collaboration.”

    BTW – yes, team spaces are great. In my experiences, it doesn’t matter what project management approaches you take — if you just co-locate the team, you’ll see an uptick in productivity, team member satisfaction, quality, and a whole list of other great by-products.

    Reply
    • Derek Huether

      Matt, thanks for reading.
      I’m very interested to see her next move. It’s as though her overall plan has yet to be revealed. I agree with you, if you want to innovate, get your people in the room together! Anything less feels like your holding back.

      I love your idea about the possible message from her “if everyone want’s to go back to working remotely, innovate the next gen collaboration tool that becomes the – no brainer and reliable tool for remote collaboration.” Perhaps Cortés could have used the same message back in 1546 with “if everyone want’s to go back to Spain, beat the Aztecs and you can rebuild the ships.”

      Reply
  3. Huet Landry

    It’s good to see some really balanced and thoughtful comments without the flames seen on more public forums.

    When heard the first reports, it was clear that most of the reporters were trying to spin the story either for or against the change, without first giving us the key facts – an unfortunately all-to-common approach used by modern “journalists” (not hiding my prejudice.)

    As many companies have discovered, giving people a significant measure of control over their working arangements is a benefit. This means accomodating different learning and working styles as well. However, the more creative the endeavor, the more benefit will be seen from collaboration. I consider that one of the primary negative impacts of the industrial revolution was the use of people as specialized machines. Thinking of people as automatons led to destroying creativity in education as we allowed “educators” to pattern schools after the factories instead of making them centers for creative thought. This in turn led to patterning “software engineering” practices after construction practices instead of after playwriting.

    For creative thought, even pairs are more productive than singletons. If people are using telework to avoid working in pairs or small groups, then mandating “face-time” can be an important first step.

    I find it interesting that few people outside of the gaming community are looking at the innovations being wrought by online gaming communities as people strive to create collaborative environments to achieve team goals. Many of these are starting to incorporate video chat sessions and multiple monitors to enhance their “team time”. Most of these highly motivated and intelligent people are not being led by anyone into helping to craft the next generation of team organization and environments.

    Reply
    • Derek Huether

      Huet,
      Thanks for adding your comments. I will admit, I have had a few people disagree with my post. They disagree with me. They disagree with what they are doing at Yahoo.

      More power to them. I know there are organizations out there that are successful and are completely distributed. They’ve clearly found a way to make it work. But it’s so much more work! Now that we have exited the industrial age and have entered a more conceptual age, “face-time” is when I’ve seen the greatest ah-ha moments happen for a team. It wasn’t from some lone hero, sitting in his basement. It was a team brainstorming around a whiteboard, one developer stealing the marker away from the next. They accomplished in minutes what I think should have taken hours or days.

      If we take a leap forward in collaboration tools, perhaps Yahoo may reverse its decision. Perhaps I may even reverse my opinion. Until then, I’ll continue to look for every opportunity to have face-time.

      Reply