Yahoo!:The Telecommuting Debate
By: Daniel Enthoven
Marissa Mayer caused a flare-up in the long running brouhaha around telecommuting. I would call it a debate, but in general, people seem to be talking past each other rather than actually engaging on ideas. On the one side, people talk about the benefits of working from home: everything from greater productivity to being earth friendly. On the other side, people talk about lower productivity and limited collaboration. I think both sides are missing the point.
The fact is telecommuting is not an unmitigated good. Nor is it a refuge for pajama clad slackers. It’s very mixed. Some studies say that working from home increases productivity. A study done by Enkata finds the opposite is true. The truth depends on the type of job, the personality of the employee, the skill of the manager, the health of the company, and a dozen other factors.
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When companies are considering telecommuting, they need to look at a lot more than just if it seems like a good idea. Here are a few high level questions that companies should ask as they look at telecommuting.
- How is productivity measured? For some types of jobs, like call center agents or sales people, productivity is easily measured and understood. For other jobs, where creativity is required, it’s much harder to measure quality and output. Call centers have been able to “go virtual” at an industrial scale because it is so easy to measure productivity. If you can’t directly measure productivity and quality, it gets much harder to manage remote workers.
- How clear is the mission? When some knows exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, they can do it remotely. If the objective is vague, the company is transitioning, or programs are in flux, remote workers will struggle to keep up with the thinking in headquarters. If people are building a product to spec, they can be anywhere. But if the product design is evolving in discussions over lunch, the remote workers get lost very quickly.
- Is collaboration productive? Some types of work are generally solitary by nature. Examples would include software coding, writing, document processing, or back office functions like approving health care claims. Some jobs work better when people are in the same room. Marketing and sales strategy evolves through animated discussion, not email threads. Brainstorming over speakerphone is never effective.
- How these questions apply to any given job is a good indication if a job is good for telecommuting. Highly measurable, clearly defined jobs for individual contributors are great. What Marissa Mayer was facing, however, was the exact opposite. A company without productivity metrics and with a changing mission, that needed brainstorming and collaboration. This is the last place you would expect people to be working from home.
The truth is, perhaps the issue of telecommuting is beside the point. In any job, the manager will have a substantially greater impact on employee productivity than where the employee works from. The irony of the Yahoo situation is that a high tech CEO was reduced to looking at VPN logs to understand who was working and who wasn’t. Is this the best solution that technology has to offer?
Companies that want to support telecommuting should start by looking at their management practices. Are the managers trained to actually manage? Do they have the tools they need to see what their employees are doing, measure productivity, and hold employees accountable to targets? Do remote workers know what the job is, and how to get help and support when they need it? If the company doesn’t address these issues, their telecommuting program will fail. Of course, if they don’t address these issues, their office based workforce will fail too. And perhaps as Marissa Mayer considers her policy, she should consider this as well.
Daniel Enthoven is the Vice President of Marketing for enkata. Enkata’s cloud-based people operations software helps organizations achieve operational excellence and creates an engaged workforce.