Working From Home

The recent Yahoo policy banning working from home has become quite controversial spawning many articles and even a highway 101 billboard.  Over the years I’ve managed teams using a range of policies so I have some definite views about what works and what doesn’t in different situations.  And that is the key point…this is not a one size fits all theory but one that is specific to the business and it’s situation at the time.

It wasn’t so long ago that we did not have the tools to make working from home practical.   As I’ve written about here previously, in my early days at Informix – pre laptop, pre internet at home, I would need to go back to the office to work in the evening or weekends.  Those tools and technologies enhanced by web and video conferencing allow us to be extremely effective even when not in the office.

I’ve experienced varying degrees of remote work effectiveness during my career.  When I was at Netscape (post IPO 97-03), the success of the Mozilla project and browser development in general was strongly impacted by key developers who worked remotely.  Their talents would become obvious from their open source contributions and either they would participate long term as key volunteers or in several cases we hired them as employees.  Most of those individuals stayed working in their locations as far away as Europe and New Zealand.  We also had some star employees who had to move out of the area for personal reasons.  What made these situations work well was the proven talent and work ethic of these individuals plus the open source infrastructure to manage their contributions and assess their performance.  There was a critical mass of remote employees that meant that large group meetings were always set up with dial-in numbers and managers were trained to facilitate.  We even had one director who effectively managed a multi-location team from Boulder.  That being said, most employees were in the office most of the time and it was a very collaborative culture.

My next role, ironically given the impetus for this post was at Yahoo.  I was there from 2003-2004 – during the heyday.  It is interesting to note that people rarely worked from home during that time.

When I got to Check Point to manage the Zone Labs division I inherited a very liberal work from home policy.  In addition, Wednesday and Friday were supposed to be “no-meetings” days.   Early on my manager Eyal Desheh expressed concern about the productivity and work ethic of the team.  My first assumption was that he didn’t understand Silicon Valley culture and how this could actually work.  Unfortunately, his warnings were correct.  The issue wasn’t the work from home as much as a lack of drive related to many typical post acquisition HR issues.  The work ethic issues were far from universal but they were contagious and affected everyone and working from home accentuated the problems.  I quickly changed the work from home policy for the people who reported to me.  The “no meetings” policy was changed to not apply to my team nor managers in the engineering organization and it eventually fell away (although managing the amount of time spent in meetings, particularly for engineers is critical).  The transition was difficult and created lots of handwringing but it improved productivity quickly and morale soon after.

When I started at SugarSync I was glad to see that our culture was one of people working primarily in the office.  In January of 2009 we were 13 people – the challenge was great to just get the job done with such a small team.  We couldn’t afford missteps anoffice spaced missed communication and collaboration possibilities by not being together.  We kept that policy going as we hired – it is much easier if the ground rules are clear from the start.  We designed our new office to be a very open setup to foster collaboration.

This didn’t mean it was easy – SugarSync has several people commuting long distances.  We always have had flextime – working slightly earlier or later schedules to avoid the traffic but still we were generally in the office together during the main part of the day.  Of course this doesn’t mean we didn’t recognize that people have life issues that require occasional work from home – a sick child, dentist appointments, plumbing emergencies but those are the exception not the norm.

For a startup in a fast moving industry such as the cloud, the work environment is dynamic and high-pressure.  Challenging problems require creativity and quick teamwork to solve.  I believe we were much more effective at SugarSync by being together.  As the team grew the learning curve was shortened dramatically for newcomers working alongside the experienced people.  Once people were working in our environment and saw the benefits of close proximity and collaboration they understood why it was needed and embraced it.  One of my favorite questions to ask new hires was what surprised them the most about SugarSync – a frequent answer was how they thought we were a much larger team than we in fact were.  I think this was a reflection of the team’s productivity.

Is it always better to be together in the office?  For certain tasks that require extended, uninterrupted time, working away from the office can be more productive (assuming you have an appropriate environment for concentration at the alternate location).  Some roles, like sales or field support by their nature are not in the office.  Many people have critical points in time where they need more time away from the office perhaps due to a health or other personal issue for them or a family member.  Allowing them to work remotely allows key people to stay with the company and maintain project continuity.

So what’s my net on this important debate?  For me it’s clear.  If at all possible, have the team primarily working together in the office during work hours.  If there are critical hires you can only make (or keep) it might be worth considering exceptions recognizing the consequences and need to manage around them.  For a company in crisis or a turnaround situation (like Yahoo) or where there is reason to believe there are productivity issues (again like Yahoo) having everyone much more together in the office may be one of the keys to the turnaround.   For a fast growing startup in a very intense space requiring collaboration and team problem solving working in the office together is important.

Does this make juggling work and personal life less easy – perhaps.  This is why companies need to be reasonably consistent.  If the reports of Marissa Mayer’s in the office nursery are true I would find that to be insensitive to the other parents of babies who are coming to the office without that close access.  We must, after all,  lead by example.  The example that I tried to set was to work hard and collaborate together during the workday.  When not in a crunch time, to leave early enough to have a few hours, including dinner, with the family and then, if needed, get back on line after the kids went to bed (or were doing their homework independently).    As managers and leaders we need to figure out what works best for our businesses and our teams.  These observations are what I have found to be most effective.

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10 thoughts on “Working From Home

  1. 100% right. Turnarounds require unity of command and direction, Driving water cooler conversations are a key part of this.

  2. Well-written Laura. I do agree that collaboration in intensive, time sensitive work is best achieved by having everyone in the same physical space. However, the nature of the work might mean productivity is higher with meetings and work cycles that could be precisely managed with remote workers. If everyone is together call the time, the chaos might make it difficult to complete technical work; some people can ‘tune out’ the noise in a busy office and focus on their personal ‘deliverables’ while others benefit from a quiet environment. Sometimes a colleague might need to switch on the ‘do not disturb’ in the interests of focusing on a specific task the quality of which may be critical to success. You are right that managers need to figure out what is best for their teams.

    • How to allow people, especially the technical team to focus in an open environment when there is a lot of activity is an important question. One thing that we found works is the noise-cancelling headphones. They both block noise and work as a social signal that someone is trying to focus.

  3. When the point of view of “work from home” or “don’t work from home” comes from experience as this post does, it is easy to see that the manager is the key player. To over manage or cultivate self-management is best addressed by experience. Employees with a high level of personal accountability will support the manager with input about what works from the point of view of the customer and end result (first) versus their own needs and what works for them as employees.

  4. What happened at Yahoo is wrong at several levels in my opinion (apart from the point you pointed out about Marisa having a nursery next to her office but others cannot afford it).
    1. This is not Yahoo’s current major issue. They still do not know whether they are a product company or content company (just an email will not fix the issue). I think this distraction is not necessary. All focus should be on solving that issue.
    2. They checked the VPN logs to make the decision. If I guy can get paid without logging in either the job does not require logging in often or he is very smart and his manager very dumb. She fired the smart people and kept the dumb ones.
    3. Yahoo is a global company and managers have to work with teams across the globe. If they cannot manage one developer working from home you wonder how they can work across cultural and geographic divides.
    4. It is a huge insult to all the management staff at Yahoo. The CEO telling them they do not know how to manage their team and she will teach them. She should have told her team “Folks I have concern about this working at home business. I want you folks to make sure these folks are 200% effective to compensate for the flexibility. If that is not happening cleanup case by case. Let us review in 3 months”. This would have helped yahoo keep the good workers working from home and get rid of the others.

    Just my $0.02

    • Hi Venky – thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.
      I agree that this is not Yahoo’s biggest issue – they have major strategic challenges to resolve. I do think, however, that during a turnaround such as this – some of the activity that needs to happen to make this turnaround is best done with people present together. I also agree that people need to manage with teams in different locations but I don’t think that is the same issue, particularly when those locations have groups that are primarily intact teams. Some of the skills to manage remote teams are the same as to manage remote workers but I can see allowing remote teams but not individual remote workers. Regarding your last point, once again my view on this is related to the fact that this is a turnaround and that they may not have the time to do all of this individual management. Also, unfortunately, many managers who are contributing well in other areas do not have the skill or experience someone like yourself does so it is dangerous to think they can be as effective in a remote working situation.

  5. Well I hope she is not expecting VP of EMEA and APAC to stick around in San Jose :). When you have 100 people you can expect everyone to be involved in the turnaround. When you have 11,000 people most people should be doing their job right instead of worrying about how to turn the company around. It will be chaos if everyone is involved in the turnaround efforts.

    I agree that every job cannot be done from home but to think that there are not even 5% of jobs that can be done from home is hard to believe specially a company like Yahoo where there are lot of creative writing and other similar jobs are involved.

    I am not sure one size fits all policy works for big companies like Yahoo. If Marisa can manage a global team reporting to her then she needs to try to replicate the same model at every level and train her managers to do so instead of saying everyone needs to be in one place.

    It is odd that the company which was part of the internet revolution and online collaboration is telling everyone all those tools do not work and the best way to work is for everyone to be in one location.

    • One thing to keep in mind is that effective remote work management – both the manager side and the employee side requires a reasonably high level of performance. GIven the company performance perhaps she found lots of poor performance throughout the organization that couldn’t sustain remote work, at least for now.

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