At the beginning of 2013, it seemed that ever-improving mobile technology and home broadband speeds were finally delivering the “work anywhere” nirvana that so many of us had looked forward to. But since then, two unexpected announcements have caused many organizations to stop and reconsider whether they really want their workforce so widely distributed.
First Yahoo, then HP encouraged or instructed (depending on how you choose to read the situation) their workforce to move back to the office, reversing the trend of remote working. The irony here is that these are two companies that you would expect to be not only embracing the use of technology for more flexible working practices, but actively enabling and encouraging other companies to do the same.
There may be a temptation to infer that here are two companies that looked at the distributed workplace of the future, didn't like what they saw and pulled their employees back to the office. But this would be an incorrect conclusion; it would be wrong to extrapolate HP and Yahoo’s policies to all other organizations.
Three Requirements of Remote Working
For a company to deploy a successful work-from-home policy, three main things are needed -- suitability of role, technology and trust.
Fairly obviously, working from home, a coffee shop or hotel room suits some occupations more than others -- as the old joke implies, a brain surgeon will have rather more difficulty in taking their work home than an author. Remote working is typically best suited to knowledge workers, people who (as the Wikipedia article succinctly suggests) “think for a living.”
Some people work like this all the time, but many other have some aspects of their job that could be considered “knowledge work.” While I can’t pretend to be familiar with a brain surgeon’s daily routine, I suspect they do some reading, writing and thinking rather than spending all day inside other peoples’ heads. So rather than a simplistic all-or-nothing policy, companies should provide guidance on what tasks should be performed in the office, and which can be performed at home.
So, supposing an employee’s tasks are suitable for working from home, the next thing that needs to be in place is the technology to allow them to stay in touch with the office. At first glance, this would appear to be the easy part -- home broadband is ubiquitous and most knowledge workers already have the necessary computer equipment at home, or a laptop they can take from work. But that isn't really enough. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, made an important observation in the aftermath of Yahoo’s announcement.
People are more productive when they’re alone. But they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”
With all the recent progress in communication tools, it would be something of an admission of failure by the IT industry if we concluded that people could not collaborate and be innovative together just because they are in different locations. But many companies are rooted in email-based communication that does make efficient collaboration difficult. A modern “digital workplace” should be reducing its dependency on email, and embracing tools such as enterprise social networks, instant messaging and video conferencing. These make the home worker less isolated, more reachable by coworkers and better integrated into the company community. They also help support the third and most important pillar of a remote working policy -- trust.
Amidst all the reporting of the Yahoo announcement back in February 2013, one (unattributed) quote stood out in particular to me:
A lot of people hid. There were all these employees [working remotely] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo.”
This made it very clear to me that Yahoo’s policy was not about technology -- it was about trust. If a manager doesn't know what their staff are doing, it suggests a problem that has little to do with technology. Fairly obviously, for a remote working policy to succeed, managers need to feel confident their staff are doing what they’re meant to be doing. It is also essential that remote workers’ office-bound colleagues don’t feel that they are compensating for those they perceive to be hiding at home. Such an atmosphere will inevitably cause serious damage to trust and productivity.
But technology and trust are somewhat intertwined -- the most obvious example being that while you can send email in your pyjamas while eating breakfast at midday, it’s rather harder to get away with that on a video conference. But enterprise social networks potentially do even more to build trust.
A fundamental principle of enterprise social networks is that you should make your work available to as many of your coworkers as confidentiality allows; instead of the author choosing who will be interested in their content, they share it as widely as possible and let the consumers of the information decide whether they need it or not. A side effect of this is that it’s much harder to hide -- if you’re not sure what someone has been working on recently, just go and look at their activity stream, and you’ll find out.
Ultimately, it seems that the moves from both Yahoo and HP have been caused by a breakdown of trust. It is not uncommon for troubled organizations to start micromanaging their employees, so considering both companies’ recent history, we perhaps shouldn't be surprised by this at all.
Marissa Mayer said at the time of Yahoo’s announcement that this wasn't a general statement on working from home, it was about what was best for Yahoo at the time. So yes, we can learn valuable lessons from Yahoo and HP -- but only about the importance of good management; they tell us very little about the pros and cons of remote working.