Last year Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer created an uproar when she cancelled Yahoo’s work-at-home policy, issuing a memo that all telecommuting employees must return to work. On the heels of that change in policy, Best Buy followed suit with a similar change in policy. It seems that the prognostication of only a few years ago—that telecommuting would become more of a norm than an exception—is being seriously challenged.
It’s certainly not a problem of technology—the technology is there, affordable and relatively easy to deploy. The pages of Wired continue to be filled with the many possibilities and opportunities. Many tasks can be performed from home, from Starbucks, from a diner or even the park. Meetings can easily be held and conversations can be engaged in throughout the world, complete with accompanying graphics and video.
Why, then, do we seem to be moving in the opposite direction? I believe it’s like any other scenario in life and business: once you actually arrive in a new paradigm and scope out the landscape adjustments will always have to be made, and procedures will have to be established and tweaked to achieve the successful potential envisioned.
A Personal Example
In my own particular case, a good portion of my company is run remotely. My office is in my home in Pacific Palisades, California. I have no employees close by. My salespeople have wings to fly, they are here in California, in Vienna, in the UK, in Sweden and in India. I have other staff—marketing, PR, content creation—scattered elsewhere throughout in the world. We physically see each other once per quarter. Yet we run as well or better than a traditional company in an office with employees all located in the same place.
I operate this way for purely selfish reasons, the prime one being I can hire the absolute best people for the positions I need to fill, without regard to where they live in the world. The staff have the benefit of not having to leave home to come to work—a right they have earned by being the best at what they do. We regularly communicate over Skype and through online meetings. The lack of physical presence is never felt.
You’ll notice, however, that I do not include programming in this model. My programming staff are in a facility in Bratislava, are all under one roof—and after many years of experience as a software developer I would do it no other way. We have 14 separate teams working on everything from product development to web design, and they have to be able to collaborate personally, regularly and rapidly.
Achieving a Balance
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer did clarify her move to bring telecommuters back to work by saying, “It’s not what’s right for Yahoo right now. It was wrongly perceived as an industry narrative.” And I think therein lies the key to the whole issue. Mayer was not trying to set a trend or say that all employees in companies everywhere should return to the office. As I myself have found, it really depends on the company culture. And even if that culture dictates that telecommuting is workable, there very well may be certain departments—as I have found with programming—that cannot function well with staff working remotely.
A Difference in Character
Even if an enterprise is well equipped for employees to telecommute, and the company culture is suited for it, there still remains one stumbling block which has to be overcome. Technology is fantastic, and is for some an end-all. But unfortunately technology is not the answer to everything—some things are a matter of staff character.
I have discovered that a telecommuting business model won’t work with staff that must be constantly supervised. For any employee to succeed in such an environment, he or she must be what is usually referred to as a “self-starter.” Interestingly I have seen that when someone is really good at what they do, they usually do fall within that category. It has never been an issue with my staff.
As the working from home model becomes more prominent—which I think it will eventually—those that depend on someone constantly being there to tell them what to do and when to do it will find themselves unemployed. It will be a matter of natural selection which, fortunately, a person will be able to fix and move themselves up and out of, by simply becoming someone who can work on their own.
So while it may appear that the work-at-home pendulum has swung in an opposite direction, I don’t see this as being the case at all. It really is a matter of striking the right balance.