Work from home – the myth, the challenges and benefits

When Yahoo! Leader Marissa Mayer, referenced in this WSJ article, went on record “ordering staff into offices”, my immediate reaction was that the pendulum had swung too far. As with many all or nothing decisions this one was laden with potential pitfalls and while at its core the intention was there, the execution may not be as satisfactory as its proclamation desired.

This led to my thinking about the myths, challenges and benefits, to both the employer and the employee, of working at home. This discussion will not talk to the general work from home needs of consultants or other professional self-employed people, or the many work from home initiatives associated with contact centres. There are plenty of dissertations about those subjects that address them from a more practical perspective. Rather, it’s about those companies that have embraced working from home within their core structure as a way to reduce costs, allowing for the generally nomadic nature of a large part of their workforce with an automatic opportunity for improved work/life balance.

If you do work from home (and from now on I will abbreviate work or working from home as “WFH”) that last comment probably raised your eyebrows or made you smile. as often the only work-life balance improvement of working from home is that the employee does not have to drive to the office and back again!

The fact is that there are myths, challenges and benefits to WFH. I can’t possibly address them all but let’s look at a few…

Infographic WFHFirst, what are the challenges with WFH policies? Foremost, perhaps what comes to mind is trust, depending on the level of the employee concerned? Then maybe information security, what about visibility to management? Motivation can be a struggle sometimes. For the employee the point that stands out most to me is community. A WFH employee can feel remote not just from
the company but from co-workers too.

 What are the benefits? I hate to say it but honestly, for most companies, the biggest is that huge reduction in overhead. Then, the employee commute and those other things mentioned in the infographic above that include: reduced-stress, potential for improved work-life balance (which means NOT rolling to the laptop first thing in the morning before saying Hi! to your family!) even reduced costs by not having to go into an office.

 What about myths?

 I think this is where we come to the “elephant in the room”, the idea that working from home makes it harder to collaborate and be creative. Really? As a blanket statement this is a huge myth. I can testify to working with some of the most creative individuals who WFH and collaborate without a problem to get the job done.

 Consider a typical development team working a typical PDLC, there are a number of group based discussions, sharing of collaborative ideas, team building sessions that make sense to support a typical product development lifecycle. Yet, when each team member goes away to their cubicle they work in an isolation of both desk and mind that is akin to, yes, WFH!

 Yes, but what about all that great stuff from around the water cooler? Well, here we are talking about something else completely. Perhaps the missing element of a WFH environment is not the inability to collaborate or be creative but the lack of a true human-interactive community. I mentioned that as a challenge above and from an outsider’s point of view, I think that this it might be the real problem at Yahoo!

 Is community necessary for creativity though? I challenge that no, it is not. Consider some of the great discoveries and quantum leaps. More often than not, it’s an individual quietly working at it who made the break-through.  Where teams make these breakthroughs I would suggest that there are certain specific professional arenas, of which software development ideas is not necessarily one.

 It would seem that the Yahoo! argument is that bringing staff together at an office automatically nurtures creativity. I can name you plenty of offices where the very fact that people are spending two hours a day commuting, spending wasted time walking around an office to meetings and, if you wish, sharing gossip and office politics at the water coolers with the occasional pow-wow with trusted co-workers about some different approach to a problem, is actually counter-productive to creativity. Where there is some fact in the argument is that, for particular workgroups, working consultatively in close proximity with easy access to co-workers, and sometimes the addition of the non-verbal communications, has some value. To say that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home”, (according to the WSJ quote of Ms. Mayer) suggests a problem with the hiring process and a lack of urgency or understanding of the company’s position on the part of the employees referenced. No wonder Ms. Mayer followed up more recently according to further reports, to want to review every new candidate applying for work personally! That is so NOT a CEO task, but it does support my suggestion above that it’s who they are hiring that has been the problem, more so than where they work. We’ll see how that story develops.

“Perhaps the missing element of a WFH
environment is not the inability
to collaborate or be creative but
the lack of a true human-interactive community.”

Okay, so what is the panacea? Is it to make a remote staff completely office-based? No, of course not, the answer is to examine the underlying problem to understand how that impacts the perceived problem, and tackle it from there.

 The much touted and from my perspective as a user of it, incredibly useful, unified communications, can help us go quite a long way to reducing the problem by the adoption of more video conferencing for ideas sessions and the proper usage of employee presence within the communication software. We use Microsoft Lync 2010 fully across the globe and the experience is amazing!

 Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe a remote worker needs to be on a video conference call all day or even logged onto their IM every day, just to show they are at their WFH desk! Video is costly for bandwidth and such a demand portrays to the employee a distinct lack of trust. Having the software and making a habit of logging on when you are at your desk is in the spirit of making your virtual presence felt as part of the company.  The presence of the WFH employee is helpful to co-workers and creates a feeling of being part of a bigger picture and there is the management component of being able to see the employee and their activity at a reporting level. Tie to that an internal social media tool and you grow collaboration further. Hold up a minute though, I don’t believe that having unified communications is enough to build a business community and create the environment for creativity and collaboration. Something more is needed.

 I work in a company where there are office based personnel and completely remote workers, of which, I am one. What helps us to be collaborative is to have enough face-to-face encounters in a year to know one another and be comfortable talking freely when using our unified communications tools. On top of that using our tools expertly so that when we are showing available, we are really available, helps our use of presence based software to be effective and useful. I can bounce from call to call, IM to IM, IM to call and desktop share and still have time for small talk, conversations about direction, ideas about strategies and what my coworkers are doing for vacation and at the weekend.

 A face to a name is a huge part of this and I would contend that instead of undertaking the costs inherent in centralizing employees to offices, using the available tools, introducing new team members to as many of their remote counterparts as is cost-effective in a face to face setting, and good team building techniques, such as regular calls to talk about team progress, go a long way to find the balance between WFH and office benefits.

 I think Ms. Mayer is onto something, I just think that it’s not what she thinks it is. Time will tell, in the meantime, I’ve got work to do!