Friday, March 8, 2013

Working From Home

A couple of days ago my wife and I went out for an early dinner.  In the restaurant we patronized there was a small group of people, perhaps eight or ten. It was obviously a work group enjoying some social time together.  The earnest conversation was periodically broken by laughter or gentle ribbing.

As I watched them interact, I admit I was a little envious.  In this stage of my working life, as a part-time independent consultant, I miss the social component of work.  The relationships, friendships and camaraderie that are created when you meet shared challenges only comes when you are part of a team.  I miss it.

It's funny that this encounter came in a week when the CEO and management team of tech firm Yahoo! rescinded their policy of working from home.  Electronics retailer Best Buy followed suit a few days later.  These decisions have ignited a firestorm of controversy that has spilled outside the USA and invited critical comment from none other than Richard Branson in the UK. CIO magazine actually supported CEO Marissa Mayer's decision citing a recent survey of tech workers and that she was trying to solve some problems specific to Yahoo!  "Of those nearly 10,000 workers, only 17 percent reported working from home two or more days a week. The takeaway is that working from home is not as mainstream a practice as everyone seems to think."

Those two own observation of the relaxed camaraderie of a team in a social setting and the polarized public commentary on a corporate decision... caused me to reflect on what this might mean to leaders.  The last paragraph of the CIO article nails the leadership issue:   "How to effectively manage a productive, remote and distributed workforce?"  I believe this is especially pertinent to global teams that are by definition "remote and distributed".

As leader of a global team, I very much appreciated the flexibility to make workplace working conditions decisions without being handcuffed by overly restrictive rules regarding where one worked.  There are just too many circumstances where it makes no sense to require specific office hours. The bigger problem I faced was the constant tension over work-life balance.  While technology enables flexible working it also blurs the boundary between work and non-work time.   As a leader I had to work harder to help people devise tactics to "turn off "from work....nights weekends and holidays...and to practice those tactics myself.

I believed then, and still do, that employees want to be successful individually and they want their work unit to be successful. Given the choice, they will be where they need to be to get the job done without the leader dictating that location.   At the same time, I also respect the periodic need to establish time for a team to form those relationships, collaborate and innovate as people can only do when they are physically present together.  I can think of at least three occasions where I had to intervene when a staff member wasn't present enough. "We never see him" or "She's never here" was the feedback from colleagues. It wasn't just suspicion that they were taking advantage of flexible working policies, it was the lack of contribution to the team.  I've long maintained that technology makes face-to face time more important, not less important.  It's the face to face relationships that give you speed when not together.

All that to say that, although I think it's important for leaders to have the flexibility to establish workplace policies that make sense, I also respect a leader's need to periodically intervene when conditions warrant.  I've got a hunch there will be more flexibility in Marissa Mayer's decision that it appears right now.

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