Bad tools might be part of the cause.
Some amazingly ambivalent results in a recent Korn/Ferry survey, which lines up with the country’s polarization on ‘remote work’ (see The polarization around remote work comes as no surprise).
While telecommuting appears to be widespread — 80% of execs say their companies now allow some degree of telecommuting — 60% believe it can limit ‘career-growth’ opportunities, and two out of ten executives believe that telecommuters should be paid less.
And Ana Dutra, CEO of Korn Ferry Leadership and Talent Consulting, said
While working at home can be beneficial for both companies and workers, it can also lead to ‘invisibility’ that can limit opportunities for career advancement. It is important for telecommuters to remain networked as closely as possible with peers and leaders in the office.
Korn Ferry is a placement agency, after all, and paid by the employer, not the employee. But it’s typical that telecommuting is seen as a benefit that a beneficent employer opts to grant to employees, and if an employee opts to do so they are beholden to ‘remain as networked as closely as possible’ with people in the office.
This is only going to shift as people come to rely more on loose ties as a means to increase business model innovation, and being ‘tightly connected’ is seen as a hindrance to agility instead of the bedrock of a stable corporate culture.
The Wall Street Journal crunched some census data, and learned that remote work has grown a bit over the past ten years, but in a non-uniform fashion.
Neil Shah, More Americans Working Remotely
More American employees are working from home at least one day a week—a trend that could lower companies’ costs and boost productivity.
Some 13.4 million people, or 9.4% of U.S. workers, labored at least one day at home per week in 2010, compared with 9.2 million people, or 7% of U.S. workers in 1997, according to one Census Bureau report released Tuesday.
At the same time, Best Buy announced Monday that it was dropping its results-only work environment (ROWE) policies and making workers come to the office regularly, as reported by the StarTribune, and Tony Hsieh of Zappo’s was interviewed by CNBC about the firing of GroupOn’s CEO, Andrew Mason, and they added a question about Marissa Mayer’s ‘no remote work’ policy. His reply?
Research has shown that companies with strong cultures outperform those without in the long-term financially. So we’re big, big believers in building strong company cultures. And I think that’s hard to do remotely.
We don’t really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well.
What we found is when they have those personal connections that productivity increases because there’s higher levels of trust.
This is a controversy that is still boiling, and I bet we will be arguing for years about the pros and cons of distributed work, because it is one of the most polarizing issues in American business today.
The big story of the week was Marissa Mayer’s ‘no remote work’ dictate at Yahoo, hands down. That sparked a huge conversation in the tech world, ranging across Yahoo’s troubles, feminism, Silicon Valley, work culture, and the good, bad, and ugly of remote work. Or maybe it’s really about the polarization in thinking about work culture, and Mayer’s action just triggered a huge catharsis in the social discourse about that, and a number of posts here (see Yahoo’s Mayer thinks that remote workers are… too remote, What Marissa Mayer’s ‘no remote work’ dictate means, Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and Jennifer Magnolfi on Marrisa Mayer’s ‘no remote work’ edict). Let me see if I can can first recap what took place, and then try to characterize the polarization going on.
As I summarized on Monday last, Yahoo’s PR head, Jackie Reses, sent out a company-wide email announcing that, effective in June, there would be no more remote work at Yahoo. Employees will have to start working out of official Yahoo offices, and if necessary, relocate to do so. After this story broke, there was a huge outburst of commentary, to which Yahoo responded with one press release saying,
This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo right now.
Nonetheless, this event has become the point of leverage in a growing dialogue about what used to be called ‘telecommuting’ and which has been cast negatively by Yahoo as ‘remote work’. Working ‘remotely’ sounds bad: it sounds like a hermit hiding in a cave while all the normal people are working in the office. I personally like the term ‘distributed work’ since it doesn’t focus on the people working outside the office as the basis of the term, but instead looks at the totality of work, with various people working in different places.
But leaving aside the signal that is sent by ‘remote work’, there seem to be a variety of camps with very different views on distributed work:
Business-As-Competition — One community was very supportive of Mayer’s move, which I characterize as the business-as-competition school of thought. This commentariat argue that business goals have to be put ahead of individual needs or likes, and if the leader of a business believes that all-hands-on-deck is necessary to build culture or get product out the door, then that’s the way it must be. These arguments usually involve some combination of these points:
- Companies like Facebook and Google provide their employees with all sorts of perks — like free meals, gyms, massage therapy, health clubs — to get them to spend long hours at work, and to decrease distractions. Mayer has done the same at Yahoo, but it hasn’t led to the same long hours. After all, she used the employee badge data to help her make the decision about remote work.
- Everyone knows that great teams work better when they are in the same physical space. The chances for serendipity go up, innovation is higher, and culture can be kindled better that way. That’s why startups all work in close quarters.
- It’s a given than people need to work long hours to be competitive today, and so anyone with a job has to commit 110% to helping the company succeed. There is no such thing as a work/life balance anymore, and Yahoo needs to shake loose anybody who lacks the commitment needed to help get the ball into the end zone.
- Yes, there are tools to help people work remotely, like video conferencing and collaboration tools, but they don’t work as well as proximity, old-fashioned meetings, and face time.
Feminists — A great deal of the controversy around Meyer’s edict has touched on the reality that women are the primary caregivers in out society, and they take on the time burdens involved in caring for children and aging parents to a much greater degree than men. As a consequence, Mayer’s action is seen as a step backward from the contemporary level of support for working women’s needs for flexibility in scheduling and locale for work. This change in policy will impact women more than men, it has been argued. And the fact that Mayer recently had a child and only took two weeks maternity leave off set the stage for criticism about her lack of commitment to women’s work issues.
Balancers — One of the loudest groups in this fight are those that are strongly in favor of allowing workers to figure out for themselves how much time they need to spend in the office, working that out in consultation with their coworkers. From this perspective, Mayer is taking away the autonomy that workers at Yahoo had come to enjoy, to avoid traffic, spend time home with sick children, or work is quieter and perhaps more contemplative surroundings. This perspective is strongly grounded in the thinking of the results-only work environment (ROWE) movement, although not necessarily using that term.
Techies — Another group arguing that Yahoo’s policy doesn’t make sense are the techies: those that believe the use of modern web-based social tools are more than sufficient to keep working teams in synch, and to build strong culture. The trick isn’t to make people work 9-5 in the office (or 9-9), but instead to inculcate social literacy, so that people are proficient in the use of these tools.
There may be some other splinter groups out there as well, but this is a reasonable distillation of the discourse out there in the past week.
This polarization is no surprise to me, nor is Yahoo’s decision to flip this particular switch. The polarization is fundamental.
The Business-As-Competition movement has a near-religious commitment to winning above all else, and a belief that companies are collectives where the individual must march to the drumbeat of the company’s strategic aims, putting that before personal considerations whenever necessary. You’ll hear this from the community of upward-striving entrepreneurs, the traditional ‘organization man’, and Silicon Valley libertarians.
The other groups — those united in their opposition to Yahoo’s new policy — share a common cause, thinking that Mayer is rejecting what they believe is the new normal, a business culture in which greater work flexibility and autonomy should be granted — or demanded — by individuals including — but not necessarily limited to — the choice as to where and when to do your work. At least some of these naysayers view this as a question of civil rights, and they fear that once this right is yanked away that others may follow.
Some have argued that we need to look at this strictly on a factual basis — to look at the research that shows (or does it) that colocated teams are more productive and innovative — but the counter examples of successful, highly distributed work forces are legend. And so, that, and detailed arguments about management ‘styles’, doesn’t really convince any of the uncommitted, because that it isn’t definitive.
In the final analysis, Yahoo says that we shouldn’t look at this as raising broad questions about the world of business, or the tech industry’s cultural foundations. However, it is impossible for us to do that, because this polarization is as deep as any in our society. In the smallest possible context, yes, Yahoo has a problem, and it needed to do something about it. But whether this works to turn Yahoo around or not, the biggest impact won’t be the few hundred or thousands or Yahoo workers whose lives are upended. The biggest impact is that Mayer’s edict has raised the issue to a national level, and shown how deeply divided we are by it.
Richard Hughes, the Broadvision director of product strategy, chimed in on the Yahoo ‘no remote work’ brouhaha with an interesting observation, based on his company’s experience using their own work media tool, Clearvale. Hughes saw a quote taken from a former Yahoo engineer, cited by Nicholas Carlson:
A lot of people hid. There were all these employees [working remotely] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo.
Hughes found that hard to imagine in a company using social tools:
Richard Hughes, On an enterprise social network you can run, but you can’t hide
What struck me was how difficult it would be for an employee of a company with an established enterprise social network to hide in this way. Their absence would be noted both anecdotally (“Richard doesn’t seem to be in my activity stream much this week”) and statistically in usage reports.
I work from home all the time, but remain one of the most active contributors to BroadVision’s own internal Clearvale enterprise social network. I’m not the most active any more, but almost everyone who has overtaken me also works from home all the time. Indeed, we consistently see much higher activity from home-workers than office-workers. On an enterprise social network you can run (i.e. work remotely), but you certainly can’t hide – anyone can see what I’ve been doing recently, simply by checking my activity stream.
Whether Yahoo’s move is the right move for their business, I wouldn’t presume to say. But I can’t help wondering whether implementation of a good enterprise social network would be a far less disruptive way for Yahoo to reconnect with its remote employees.
I strongly agree. Mayer may be motivated by the desire to get teams reengaged, after a long period of drift. But that lack of engagement is a management failure across the board, not a failure of remote workers being remote. And rolling out some enterprise-grade work media tools would be a lot less disruptive and employee-friendly than ‘all hands on deck’.
Yahoo says that its new edict banning remote working is necessary to build the right kind of culture. But how is making things less appealing for potential employees going to help Yahoo become more innovative?
Kara Swisher reported that Yahoo’s CEO, Marrisa Mayer, has decided to roll back the company’s quasi-commitment to remote work. In a company wide email, PR head Jackie Reses lowered the boom:
YAHOO! PROPRIETARY AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION — DO NOT FORWARD
Over the past few months, we have introduced a number of great benefits and tools to make us more productive, efficient and fun. With the introduction of initiatives like FYI, Goals and PB&J, we want everyone to participate in our culture and contribute to the positive momentum. From Sunnyvale to Santa Monica, Bangalore to Beijing — I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices.
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. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration. Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.
Thanks to all of you, we’ve already made remarkable progress as a company — and the best is yet to come.
I’ll leave to one side the personal issues for people who took jobs under the agreement that they could work away from an official Yahoo office, and simply comment on this at the macroeconomic level. This is going against the tide on remote work, which is growing. Even if Mayer thinks she’s trying to kindle a new culture at Yahoo, pretending the 11,000 employee company is a startup and everyone has to toil endlessly under the watchful eyes of their fellow Yahoos to share culture is a bit much.
More likely this is the next step in a cultural cleansing of the company, one intended to scrape off all the folks who psychologically don’t fit in with the new cultural norms that Mayer believes she needs in place to make Yahoo go zoom. She wants more collaboration, by which she means she needs to get employees buying into longterm strategic goals, and the principles and practices that management believes are essential for meeting those goals. In this ‘collaboration’ is a code word for becoming part of a collective, where certain behaviors — like working independently outside of Yahoo offices — will not be tolerated.
[I have another post coming on that topic in a more general light.]
In the recently published Work Media Roadmap, we identified one trend that is having the biggest impacts on business today, in the context of adopting social tools in general, and work media tools (enterprise social networks) specifically. I called this the 3D Workforce:
Traditional work is being uprooted today:
- Workers are increasingly mobile, and their expectation is that they can and must work wherever they are. Work can be performed at home, in the train, at a coffee shop, and in the office, and we have increasing autonomy in deciding where and when to do what.
- Individuals and organizations increasingly do not recognize a clear break between work hours and leisure time, for better and for worse. The discontinuity inherent in “lifeslicing” has deep societal implications, and it is happening at an increasing rate.
- Work is commonly shared across geographically dispersed workers, different companies, and a growing number of freelancers, whose contributions are now estimated at more than 35 percent of all professional and creative work in the U.S.
- People also timeshift across projects, making work discontinuous. As a result, people are becoming used to working on loosely coordinated, short-term projects, with a growing reliance on results-only work styles and decreasing organizational infrastructure and oversight.
There is also a fourth D: disengagement. There has been a strong increase in the proportion of workers that are disengaged in the past five years, perhaps doubling from 1 in 10 to 1 in five. And the costs of this disengagement can be very high, since high performance is unlikely in the disengaged, and they can cause resentment among others. Obviously, management should try to counter disengagement in whatever ways possible.
Scott Edinger has identified one factor that could be relatively easy to manipulate. He thinks that remote workers — those that work somewhere other than where their boss works — are more engaged.
Scott Edinger, Why Remote Workers Are More (Yes, More) Engaged
The team members who were not in the same location with their leaders were more engaged and committed — and rated the same leader higher — than team members sitting right nearby. While the differences were not enormous (a couple of tenths of a point in both categories), they were enough to provoke some interesting speculations as to why this might be happening.
Edinger’s points are worth exploring, but they share a interesting commonality: when workers are remote, the leader’s behaviors change, and that — Edinger thinks — makes all the difference.
Proximity breeds complacency. — Edinger argues that managers tend to overlook opportunities to communicate with people they see all the time. This accords with other research that shows that working in open layouts lead to more communication but more superficial communication.
Absence makes people try harder to connect. — Managers have to set time aside and schedule calls with remote workers, which makes meetings more organized and productive.
Leaders of virtual teams make a better use of tools. — The array of communication tools available, including video conferencing, work media, telephone, instant messaging, and so on, mean that remote works can communicate in the most appropriate way for a particular purpose. For example, posting comments in a Google Doc is much more helpful than handwaving in a face-to-face meeting.
Leaders of far-flung teams maximize the time their teams spend together. — Edinger believes that when remote workers invest the time to meet physically, the time is organized more rigorously, and it is more of an event, not just-another-thursday status meeting. This can create better results since everyone takes on more planning before hand, and they are less likely to divert their attention during the joint time.
So, letting people work remotely a very simple method to up engagement, and calls mostly for a change in managers’ thinking and time allocation. Perhaps that’s why it is not as common as it might be, since managers are the ones that have to lead that change.
Vacation season is in full swing, but small business owners continue to be besieged, as ever, with a tidal wave of responsibilities. The collision of these two realities could equal frustration, but according to a new survey, there’s actually a happier result– more remote work.
An article on women and work-life balance is stirring a predictable flurry of debate on the internet, but the piece is worth reading for those interested in remote collaboration as well as gender issues for what it says about “time macho” work culture and telecommuting.