Why I embrace a blended work environment

Not much makes me angrier than hearing that remote workers are not as productive or effective as those who go to the office every day.

I’ve been a part-time remote worker since 2000 when my then employer, in the midst of the dot com bubble, realized they could not continue buying expensive Silicon Valley office space to house their growing employee population and their ability to attract talent was hampered by commuting time in the congested Bay Area.

My company rolled out a carefully planned “flex worker” program and enticed early adopters with a company-paid cell phone, free wheeled briefcase, and reserveable “drop-in” offices located in prime location – along the windows. Curious about this new way of working, I was one of the first to sign up. Acceptance into the program was contingent upon completion of a short course in how to work – and most important how to collaborate – from home.

In the ensuing 12 years, and at two companies, I’ve worked remotely anywhere from 20-100% of the time. I’ve always been recognized as a top performer and, as I wrote a couple of years ago, I make a concerted effort to stay visible. Currently, I work 3,000 miles from company headquarters and from most of the people I interact with – both on my peer team and cross-functionally. Some days I work at my kitchen table and other days I drive for over an hour in heavy traffic to sit in a cubicle at the local office, but either way my location is transparent to my manager and colleagues. Several times a year I visit the corporate offices and sit among my team.

Working remotely, just as working in the office, has advantages and disadvantages. Putting the issues of work/life balance and flexibility aside, it’s my experience that a blend of remote and office work is ideal for “knowledge workers” like me and the folks at Yahoo!. For large technology companies like ours, it’s simply inevitable as our workforce is globally distributed. A sub-team that I’m a part of right now consists of me in California, a colleague in North Carolina, and another in New Zealand. There is no way we will be having hallway conversations!

When I’m working remotely, I have more control over my time. My colleagues and I use conference calls, online meeting tools, instant messaging, and email to collaborate. But I also have long periods of uninterrupted time to make progress on my projects. I’m not slowed down by the drop-in visitor who won’t leave or the cube neighbor who listens to his conference calls on speakerphone. No, I don’t have productive impromptu hallway conversations, but I also don’t get waylaid on a trip to refill my coffee mug.

Working in the office is productive in a different sort of way. It can be very energizing to sit among my colleagues, and when we eat lunch together it’s convenient to seek their advice on situations where I might not bother them otherwise. I acknowledge that having a face-to-face connection goes a long way toward building a relationship, and my presence confirms that I’m as committed to our team’s success as they are. But at the same time the day quickly slips away with lots of personal interaction and little time for quiet work.

Apparently a significant number of Yahoo! employees who work remotely are unproductive, maybe even hiding. By requiring every employee to work in an office, Yahoo! intends to enforce accountability. Perhaps even lazy remote workers will quit rather than report at the office. Honestly, I consider this a management fail on all accounts.

Putting aside the fact that Marissa Mayer is a woman and a mom, or that I’m a woman and a mom, it appears that not only did she make a confounding business decision but she didn’t market it well to already demoralized employees.

Is this, as some speculate, a way to reduce headcount without doing a layoff? I think we all know that employees who leave of their own accord are usually the A players, the ones who are being actively recruited and will quickly find new employment. The very unproductive, those who are hiding, will suck it up and continue to do mediocre work, all while poisoning the environment with their unhappiness. I’ve worked in this environment before. They need to be actively managed out.

Just three things are required to allow remote workers to be successful:

  1. The right technology/tools
  2. Commitment to the company’s success
  3. Accountability

I would expect that as a technology company, Yahoo!’s employees have leading edge collaboration tools. I think the crux of Yahoo!’s problems start at the top. Has the leadership created a compelling vision and strategy and communicated this effectively so that the employees believe they can contribute to success? Are middle managers managing effectively and holding their teams, in corporate offices and remote, accountable?

I truly want to see Yahoo! succeed. I want to see a young, high profile female CEO turn around an ailing company, and I dearly hope Yahoo!’s 11,000 employees will stay employed. Marissa Mayer made a big, bold move last week in the face of great criticism and I applaud that. I just think it was the wrong move.

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5 Responses to Why I embrace a blended work environment

  1. Lady Jennie says:

    I love it when my husband works remotely, because it usually means he’s home with me. It’s usually a good day’s work because there is no commute time and lunch is quick. He travels so much it’s nice to have his presence.

  2. kimtb says:

    Kris, thanks for the thoughtful post. As you know, I have a small business and I have always wanted to be family friendly. When we were at about 10 staff, I let two of them (men) telecommute one day a week. It was only good for them. The rest of the staff was resentful, especially those who were childfree. It was viewed, by the staff, as a day off, where they couldn’t count on access and certainly not collaboration. So I think your point that there has to be a commitment to communication and accountability is right on. One thing I do feel we miss with a distributed workforce is a sense of workplace community. I don’t think workplaces need (or should be) family, but I do think they are a place where we can connect and care for one another. Above all, I think there are so many different types of work, even within one company, and some jobs are better candidates for remote work than others. Lack of collaboration and communication can happen within the office too! I wish at Yahoo they had invested in training and communication, rather than just ditching the program. BTW, the reason I don’t work remotely is because I am not disciplined enough to do so. I do work at home, and come in around 9:30 am, and leave around 4:45…so I have flexibility. But work at home…it wouldn’t work for me!

    • Ah, you remind me that my view is very large company centric! I agree with your statement about workplace community. It’s hard to do at a large, distributed company like mine. On my floor alone at least 5 different divisions (and many different functions) sit in neighboring cubicles. There’s nothing that identifies different workgroups or projects, and when I head to the break room to refill my coffee cup, I usually don’t know, and have never seen, any of the other people there. Of course, for a deep introvert like me that’s OK. :) Thanks for commenting!

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