Hauling in the Yahoos: a Former Remote Worker’s Perspective

Marisa Mayer flexes her CEO muscles by rudely reigning in remote workers. Is this blanket policy the right move, or might it backfire?

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Blue-Jeans

image source: Mashable

As she struggles to reinvent a floundering Yahoo, freshman CEO Marissa Mayer has made some interesting business moves.  That seems to define her as a leader.

Very recently the Internet had been aflame with article after article either warming to or scorching Mayer’s decision to rewind over a decade of flexible work options, particularly remote working.  I’ve personally never seen the debate on this topic get this heated, this quickly and broadly.  And just as it quieted down, Best Buy fired the discussion back up again with similar news.

Some observers naively hail these actions as necessary to get a beleaguered employee base on the same page, to foster much-needed innovation ostensibly best achieved with teams… especially for troubled businesses.  Others indignantly decry the one-size-fits-all approach of onsite-only management, lambasting such decisions as hypocritical and myopic assaults on the very Internet-empowered world that companies like Yahoo helped create.

Can the subject really be that black-and-white?

As a former remote worker I can assure you that it need not be.

Location Global/Negotiable

Not long ago, I worked for a global company supporting fellow logistics employees across the world.  This was a big career change, one that yanked me out of a cubicle-arranged comfort zone and into a realm of 24/7, whatever-it-takes-to-ship-good-product demands.  My particular area was in reverse logistics, specifically trade customer complaint resolution.  We shipped cell phones by the monster truckload and occasional glitches and gotchas occurred.  If there was a shortcoming or breakdown in our tracking system or processes, rendering claims handlers anywhere unable to perform their duty, it was my job to fix it.  Immediately.

This sort of emergency management doesn’t square well with standard working hours or locations.  But up until that job, the bulk of my professional career had been spent in conventional eight-to-five environs.  I tried to handle this new role accordingly.

It didn’t work.

There was incredible pressure from my employee customers for me to be available on an as-needed basis.  That worked well for my own and neighboring time zones, but not so much for the rest of the planet.  I was typically preparing for sleep when our Asian markets were getting in gear, and hitting snooze on the alarm clock when Europe was trying to resolve their own issues for the day.  So there were all too often significant delays in attacking some off-continent crisis.  That didn’t help my customers, and it didn’t help my reputation either.

I was allowed to work a day or so per week at home if needed, and I began taking advantage of it more and more.  With no commute and no regular office hours, I slowly drifted into work cycles that matched my customers’.  I woke up very early to greet Europe.  I next tackled the Americas, and afterwards disengaged for an hour or two, often napping or running errands.  After that break, I would labor on strategic and other work that wasn’t bound to shipping cycles.  Then another break for supper with my family,  and I got back online to see how Asia Pacific was doing.  That accomplished, I was usually done for the day.

My wife was mystified by this work routine, and my boss was concerned.  At first he asked me to align back with the work hours of my region.  I explained how I had developed and naturally settled into a more effective mode, and it was working for me; to his credit he agreed to let me keep doing so with the caveat that I would drive into the office periodically and of course when required for meetings.  He traveled a great deal at that time so we met virtually at least as often as we did in person.

And we made it work.  The proof is in the feedback, such as a LinkedIn recommendation I received from a colleague:

Randy is one of my favorite colleagues to work with since on one hand he could be a very talented IT person to support key users in the system, on the other hand he is even more talented to put the process in place, visualize and explain it clearly to his audience.

As a quality person, What I see Randy’s top qualities are including:

1. He got used to build up a global network with all Nokia-scale sales, factory, care, and LSP teams. He even runs it 24×7 due to time differences.
2. Randy is very patient and thoughtful when he tries to help people out from their difficulties.
3. Most importantly, he is easy-going, and very HAPPY even when facing very difficult situations.

That last part is key: being able to define my working hours, especially to best fit the demands of the role, DID make me happy.  Which made me more productive.  Which made everyone else affected by my work happy.  We need more ripple effects like that in the workplace– where ever it is and how ever it’s delineated.  This is no-brainer stuff that defies the status quo.  But as Rakesh Agrawal explains, the office is changing.

Admissions, Disclaimers, etc

Of course, as mentioned previously I was close enough to the corporate office to drive in as needed.  Not every remote worker has that luxury.  But then, not every remote worker needs it: some roles embed the remote worker with customers, so their team is not assembled of coworkers, but rather those externals whom they support.

Those observers who insist that we all work better in teams unfairly dismiss those independent roles where teams can actually become a burden.  In addition, the savvy remote worker plugs into other communities that support his or her role even more intimately than do collections of colleagues.  As a remote worker, I often gathered with other professionals sharing my work and related interests.  I also attended seminars, training sessions, industry events… all of these activities served to supplant the traditional coworker teams and in many cases were far more effective in helping me to meet my needs and goals.  It goes without saying that security must always be kept in mind, but that’s even an issue internal to a company.

Finally, I note with dismay that coworking has been left almost completely out of the mainstream discussion.  Coworking spaces can be great environments to replace the conventional office.  They can reduce worker commutes and cut corporate costs as well.  They need not be formal, either– for me coffee shops worked as well as any office.  And if you just miss the ambiance of workplace background noise, there’s an app for that.

Remote working is not for everyone, but for those who are able and choose to do so, there’s plenty of advice from those who have developed best practices.  I highly recommend heeding it.

Conclusion

In response to the media furor over Mayer’s decision, Yahoo was quick to release a statement claiming that the restrictive policy was not meant to be a broad indictment against remote working per se, but rather to address Yahoo’s specific workplace needs.  That would be fine, but for one glaring bit: Yahoo is a technology company, one whose very business has fostered and even depends upon the virtual distribution of intellectual capital.  Intentionally or not, Yahoo is sending a sweeping signal that a large company founded on breaking down conventional workplace barriers is unable to make remote working work… rendering any disclaimers disingenuous.

Quantifiable refutation of Mayer’s premise is easy enough to find.  Microsoft, Automattic and other employers are successful at remote working… the latter spectacularly so.  Jason Fried of 37 Signals will be releasing a powerful counter to Mayer’s claims very soon.

I’m not even going to pretend to be objective on this one.  I know remote working can work.  I know that the negative aspects can be overcome.  Somewhere between visions of remote pajama-clad loafers and office-bound meeting jockeys is a rainbow of reality: the success of an employee located anywhere depends on factors too varied to distill into simple soundbites.

Media outlets will pump this sort of story from both angles until it’s exhausted, enticing readers into comment battles with clickbait headlines in order to prove their worth.  This distracts from the real discussion, which can’t so easily be parsed into good-bad proclamations.  The work world has a need for bodies in close proximity.  It also has a need for people in flexible, work-anywhere roles.  The best fit is best defined on a case-by-case basis and decided on empirical evidence rather than the rants of writers on either side of the debate… including this one.

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Editor-in-Chief. Making tech accessible since the Jurassic. Personal ramblings at texrat.net. Follow @texrat on Twitter.

Latest posts by Randall "texrat" Arnold (see all)

  • onethreealpha

    Great read (rant?) Texrat. Having decided to make the move to being a stay at home dad for the next year or two, I have gone through a transition process where I’ve spent the last 3 months working from home. This has allowed me to earn some much needed additional income prior to ceasing work and allowed my employer to organise a suitable replacement for me when I leave.

    Has it worked? Sort of. The nature of my job is predominantly desktop management, so a laptop with remote access and a mobile phone is all I needed to “transfer my office”. Certainly for my employer, it has worked, in that there has been no loss of productivity and the outcomes have remained consistent. For me, it’s a different story. The immense challenges of juggling two kids (2yr old and 1yr old) with my working from home has undoubtedly increased stress levels and left me running to the bathroom every time the work phone rings (this is my safe/silence room, as the kids’ noise volume seems to magically ramp up in response to a mobile ring tone of any sort).

    The distraction is always there and does not lend itself to a 100% commitment to either.

    In this, I can see where, long term, working from home would not be feasible or successful, at least in combination with stay at home parenting for ME. No kids? no problem.

    And here is the thing. Ms Mayer has income and position that enables full time carers and a personal creche next to her office. Given that, for many, child care costs and parenting needs can be a driving force behind remote work/telecommuting, this is a vital consideration, not only when determining why people want to work from home, but if it will be a successful scenario.

    In this, is a duty of care that the employer must consider. Whilst the idea may seem to provide a suitable solution, the productivity issues that are directly related to the impact on work, due to the home “environment” may, in fact, be secondary to the overall health and well being of employees, who having been allowed to do so, may find being torn between two competing forces is a greater problem.
    Given the litigious environment in the USA, I can see it now…. Employer “X” lets staff member “Y’ work from home. If your working from home, has an Occupational Health and Safety risk assessment been undertaken.

    The stress of looking after the kids at home, competing with work commitments creates ongoing mental health issues for staff member “Y”, who promptly sues his/her employer for failing to provide a healthy work environment. Better yet, running to answer the work mobile, member “Y” trips on his/her two year old’s toy car and breaks a leg……

    Certainly the issues go well beyond the petty “team building” propaganda that Ms Mayer put out as a justification, but with just as much risk to the comany’s bottom line as poor productivity…

    • http://post404.com/ Randall “texrat” Arnold

      I agree, one’s family situation can be a real challenge. No easy answer for it either. “Child pooling” is one solution I’ve heard *can* work, though, as long as one belongs to a network of neighboring remote workers. I would like to see more coworking spaces, especially with child care available.

      I’m fortunate that my boys were preteens when I was remote working, but even that came with occasional drama and voices raised to get the attention of ol’ dad in a teleconference. So yeah, I do know that Pavlovian phone-to- child’s voice relationship!

      You raise excellent counterpoints, much better and more relevant than the dismissal of some article writers. Thanks for the contribution.