Remote work, trust and productivity

posted by Jeff | Thursday, February 28, 2013, 10:44 AM | comments: 0

People in technology circles have been buzzing about the decision at Yahoo to eliminate or severely restrict remote workers. Despite a growing body of evidence that suggests remote folk are actually more productive, and excellent contributors, much of the noise on the Web seems to think that new CEO Marissa Mayer is doing the right thing. I think it's a completely awful decision. I don't think it's a universally awful decision for every situation. I mean, the wait staff at a restaurant obviously has to be there, but there are too many characteristics of work that are incorrectly associated with a butt in a seat.

Several things come to mind immediately about the top-down nature of Yahoo. The first thing is that people working remotely are not trusted to do the work. The second thing is that managers are not trusted enough to make decisions about who on their teams are making meaningful contributions, regardless of where they physically work. (Honestly, this is a problem at a lot of large companies, as indicated by a lot of destructive behavior.) Third, it makes the irrational case for an untrue opposite, that people who are physically in a space are more productive. I can't be the only one who has worked with long-term employees who have "face time" but add almost no value. These things, collectively, are going to be a huge morale buster for Yahoo.

It's the trust problem that is easily the worst part of this decision. I tend to lump in local vs. remote along with a lot of other employee attributes now. You don't overlook people because of gender or age, and I eventually came around to not overlooking people without college degrees. The physical location of someone is the last part, and I would hate to miss someone just because they're not at arm's length.

The Yahoo argument makes two cases explicitly (if you're willing to overlook the trust undertones mentioned above). The first is that collaboration is more likely with colocation. The second is that they're trying to improve the culture of the company, presumably by forcing colocation. I can't say I buy either argument, because just as Francine in accounting appears to work long hours and look busy, it doesn't mean she's actually adding value. The problem isn't where Francine is working, the problem is Francine. Collaboration and culture are people problems, not geography problems.

I think that this was probably the biggest takeaway I had working for a full year remotely. It was a tale of two bosses.

My first boss had the classic "Midwest factory worker" mentality, as I like to call it. Given his experience, the butts-in-the-seats approach made sense to him. In retrospect, it's weird that he hired me remotely, but he also came around quickly. When we talked about the issues we had on the team, our conversations started around face time and hours, but it wasn't long before we moved the focus entirely to results. People working in different buildings or different states were delivering more results then people sitting in the office 45 hours per week. That change in focus allowed him to look at the right problems. Productivity and collaboration, as it turns out, are people problems.

More importantly, however, was that we kept in regular contact, talked a lot via phone, IM and video, and really our working relationship was just as solid as it would be if I were there. Not being able to go out for a beer after work was definitely a negative, but the point here is that it was the people involved in the working relationship that made the difference... just as it would if we were located in the same place.

Now flip to the second boss. She was remote not just to me, but the entire team. She lacked the focus on results and communication that my first boss did, and I felt she was completely ineffective. The people matter. The old school guy came around and made it work, while the career remote worker didn't get it.

I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but remote work is never going to be the problem, the people are. Collaboration and excellent culture depend on people.

For me, I admit that I see a lot of value in being physically around other people, but I find that most of those benefits are social in nature. If I'm really being objective, the pros of remote work outweigh the negatives. As I said, it really depends on the people involved, which, not coincidentally, applies to colocation as well. Yahoo is addressing the wrong problem.


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