The blogosphere has blown up with debate about the controversial decision by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to recall all staffers working from home back to a physical office. "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," reads the internal Yahoo memo. In contrast, proponents of remote work arrangements counter with arguments such as telecommuting decreases pointless, time-sucking socialization and telecommuters actually work more hours. Well, who is right? The answer is: IT DEPENDS.
Here's the thing -- it's not about working from home vs. in the office. That's too simplistic. Rather, it's really about the workers themselves and their managers. Having run an all virtual company for nearly five years, I can tell you that not all people are suited to remote work situations and not all managers are equipped to supervise and hold those workers accountable. These and other factors along the human capital chain ultimately determine the efficacy of any virtual or remote work situation.
To start, are you hiring people from the outset who are likely to be effective working from home? Candidates must be prequalified during the interview process to gauge if a remote work arrangement fits their behavioral style and personality or if they need the water cooler and employee cafeteria in order to thrive. When staffing our virtual team, we always asked targeted questions specifically designed to assess whether applicants possessed things like:
- discipline to work from home amidst distractions and with varying amounts of daily direction or supervision;
- ability to work independently, being a self-starter, initiative;
- judgment to reach out for help when needed, despite being alone in a home office;
- experience in similar work environment or culture.
Today's technology enables collaboration and on-demand communication, which are essential for boosting camaraderie and efficiency among remote workers. Are you equipping and effectively training people on the right tools to communicate early and often? Shared document storage and reference, IM, screen sharing, real time multi-user document editing, and online meeting rooms are all tools to leverage on a daily basis to simulate office environments.
Once hired and trained, remote staffers shouldn't remain out of sight and out of mind. Adhering to management best practices is even more important with remote workers. For example:
- Have your managers and staff aligned on SMART goals, individually and as a team? The focus in any flexible work arrangement should always be on how the work will get done and what benchmarks -- clearly defined both in terms of deliverables and time -- are realistic.
- Are your managers having regular one-on-one meetings with each direct report to regularly coach them, review priorities, give feedback, make appropriate adjustments, and check in on the intangibles?
Working from home is not a one size fits all panacea, but neither is Mayer's directive to eliminate them all. Not that she asked me, but my advice to Mayer -- now that she can effectively start tabla rasa -- would be to consider other flexible work alternatives beyond just working from home, as appropriate for the person and the role. Job sharing, flexible hours, compressed work weeks, part time and part-year work, sabbaticals, and other extended leaves are all options for keeping workers engaged and retaining ones for whom the traditional Monday to Friday, 40-60 hour workweek is a deal killer. Otherwise, she will risk losing some top talent and/or find herself unable to attract the right new talent necessary to achieve the desired turnaround of Yahoo.