03/08/2013 06:12 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

Is Work a Place, a Result, or Both?

Now that the initial buzz of Merissa Mayer's decision to ban telecommuting has settled a bit, perhaps we can step back, reflect, and determine lessons learned. Unfortunately the initial onslaught of bad press was preoccupied with asking the wrong questions. For those of us in the technology field, it's simply too easy to oversimplify and declare that this is a step backwards, pointing to all the social collaboration and unified communication technologies that enable us to work from remote locations. We can all agree that technology plays an important part of the conversation, but we can be confident that the Yahoo! team is aware of this. So the role of tech and future of work is not the key lesson. It's also instinctive to ask if the decision is really worth the frustration it causes the affected employees. The initial morale blow is obvious and what's important is how it will be repaired in the long term -- only time will tell. Finally it is a bit extreme, and maybe even paranoid, to then ask if the ban of telecommuting will become a new trend in the enterprise. Just recently, Best Buy announced the cancellation of their teleworking program.

Before I deep dive into this topic, it's important for me to profile my company and our work-from-home policies. In 2012, the Boston Business Journal and the Boston Globe named Enterasys as one of the best places to work. We were ranked #4 out of nearly 1,600 companies by the Boston Globe. We were also named the top 10 coolest companies to work for in Boston. We are a technology company and we have an amazingly flexible telecommuting policy -- for example, nearly 50 percent of our call center staff are full-time telecommuters. In 2012-2013, we have won a total of 6 Stevie Awards for customer service excellence with a net promoter score of 80.

Perhaps the more important questions to ask regarding working from the office or home are the following:

  • How can we motivate our employees to want to contribute to our company's success?
  • How do we create a work environment that can help our employees achieve their full potential? Together?
  • Work without purpose is a job. How we define and communicate a purpose that can inspire our employees to delight our customers?

Business leaders who are struggling to build more productive team should be asking themselves these questions. They should take a hint from Ms. Mayer before judging, knowing that she came from "the best company to work for," to a company that is struggling to regain relevance. Perhaps face-time during a company turnaround period matters? Underperforming companies have a mix of hygiene (brand awareness) and health (culture) issues that they must address. All strong leaders know that you cannot allow short-term inconveniences to get in the way of long term benefits. If a broken culture is your symptom, short term morale damage is not your top concern. According to a Business Insider source, the Yahoo team is "thrilled" indeed about the change. Remember, two companies thought of as the top innovators in the world -- Facebook and Google -- strongly promote an in-office work environment and make only few exceptions. Several years ago the company I work for was in a tough spot and we went through turn-around period of our own. I can tell you that work from home policies were less flexible during those times, and today we are better for it.

Demanding that all employees come to the office is not the complete solution. Inspiring employees with a vision is a start. Enabling employees to support that vision and embedding it into the culture on a day to day basis is where the fun begins. I believe there are key tenants to building a healthy culture, and it's the social business that is best suited to fulfill those tenants. Without the environment and tools that encourage open sharing and collaboration, it's too easy for the team to disengage. Studies have shown that collaboration tools can improve employee productivity gains by 20-25 percent, including telecommuters. What are those key tenants?

  1. Enable collaboration. When asked in a recent IBM survey of over 1,700 CEOs from 64 countries what is the trait most wanted an employee, the top answer given by 75 percent of those asked was "collaboration." Companies like and SuccessFactors (SAP) understand the importance of collaboration technologies in business -- IDC estimates a market of $4.5 billion by 2016.
  2. Promote creativity. The fire-in-the-belly inspiration is more crucial to the creativity aspect, as is face-to-face collaboration. Especially in a turn-around period, banning together as a team, and bouncing ideas off each other in as casual a format as possible, will be paramount to starting over and fostering innovation. However, those who are not pushing a multi-faceted approach by also looking to reproduce that water cooler conversation in a virtual way are going to miss out. A social work environment helps humanize senior management and the business as a whole.
  3. Encourage shared accountability. Be it face to face, or through social networking, the more interaction between a team, the more they feel implicitly accountable. Communication improves culture.

I believe that most people find value in allowing people to work remotely. But I also believe that most people find an irreplaceable value in teams that work side-by-side. Once the foundation of a strong environment is built, a healthy, growing business will find the right balance, and then integrate flexible options where it makes sense.

Working from home is a privilege, not an entitlement. As business leaders, we must trust the people we hire and then trust them to do their work -- as long as we are driving results. All successful businesses measure results and if you cannot drive results, you cannot lead. To reach full potential, or at least desired results, we must have the courage to make tough decisions and put the company's, and most importantly customer's needs, ahead of our own. Work is not a place, but the quality and quantity of work is influenced by location. Without perspective, be slow to judge.

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Morin (Twitter: @JonathanMorin).