Telecommuting Works If You Intentionally Design It

Yahoo’s recent move forces everyone to examine and improve their own telecommuting policies.

Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer made a very 20th-century management decision when she decided to recall the company’s telecommuters and revoke their remote work privileges. She could have offered industry leadership for distributed workforce management, but instead, she acted like a typical industrial age manager by deciding that seeing people’s butts in seats would result in a better managed workforce.

As a scenario planner, I know telecommuting may not be inevitable, but companies as far ranging as Jet Blue, American Express, and GlaxoSmithKline all offer various forms of telecommuting, and many seek to reduce real estate costs by replacing personal workspaces with communal workspace when people do work in the office. With past layoffs and the typical over-leasing common in an early Silicon Valley firm, better space utilization is probably not part of Mayer’s equation.

Perhaps Mayer’s knee-jerk reaction to telecommuting employee abuses doesn’t just ignore good practice examples, it speaks to the post-recession proclivity to retrench and bring back old models. Perhaps it was, as noted in Business Insider, because "A lot of people hid. There were all these employees [working remotely] and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo." Many in the blogosphere see innovation and general cultural shakeup as her impetus to action.

Regardless of Mayer’s motivations, she should have taken on telecommuting as a learning moment for Yahoo and its customers. She should have publicly asserted Twenty-First Century leadership to create a new, positive aura around the number one Internet portal. Instead, Mayer has invoked ire, the indignance of workplace trend watchers, and even the support those who favor old-style management to empowerment.

Before others take the great leap of retrenchment and draw back from brink of perceived telecommuting chaos, they should try these ideas first:

Commitment-based Management
Failure to assert commitment-based management is the number one failure related to telecommuting and distributed work in my opinion. Commitment-based management simply captures people’s commitments to the organization, and to each other, and holds them accountable for meeting those commitments. It also explicitly states that where and when the commitment is achieved doesn’t matter, unless place is explicitly included in the agreement.

For many activities, from writing reports to reading the status reports of others, place is unimportant. People who have an office, as American Express found (see "") that office occupation around 50% is common they account for sick time, vacation and travel. So even having an office doesn’t mean people will be in an office, just as working from home on a regular basis does not preclude face-to-face meetings.

Organizations can’t simply eliminate observational management practices without replacing them with an idea that works equally well in the virtual world, as it does in the physical world. Commitment-based management springs from Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives, which could be argued already encompasses enough intellectual rigor to support distributed work. But for many, MBOs remained rooted in the industrial age, so new terminology is required. Commitment-based management adds an extra set of details and accountabilities, but it also requires follow-through and follow-up to ensure that employees, partners and others are meeting their commitments.

Designing the Collaborative Work Experience
A good work experience requires a balance between technology, policy and practice and space. I conducted research a few years ago that demonstrated that just moving between floors created distance issues similar to telecommuting. The camaraderie, in-office support, access to talent and other items often cited as the benefit to co-location are often mythical. Some R&D facilities achieve a modicum of intensive co-located creation, but most people conduct their work in isolated offices, coming together in unproductive meetings so they can share their status and activities. In their book, Uniting the Virtual Workforce (Wiley, 2008), Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard R. Reilly see distance as not only an issue of physicality, but also one of operational practice and affinity. In some software companies people in offices next door to each other, working for different product teams, have no more of a relationship in the physical space than they would if both telecommuted.

According to Business Insider, VPNs were a major indicator of telecommuting employee disengagement. That is a difficult case to make with the likes of Dropbox, Google Drive and Skydrive circumventing the need for VPNs. Most e-mail retrieval doesn’t require a VPN anymore, and if a team creates a shared space externally, they don’t need to go through the pain of using a VPN. VPNs also often make it difficult to use non-standard services like Internet file synchronization. The lack of VPN use may have been more a statement about Yahoo’s IT infrastructure than one about disengagement. Yahoo is also one of the few major players in the Internet space that doesn’t offer free, synchronized file services. Perhaps that is a competitive offer that Mayer should look into.

Yahoo clearly didn’t align management practice with new remote work policy. They didn’t rethink communications and camaraderie, they didn’t think about synchronizing clocks or enhancing people’s personal time management skills—and they certainly didn’t think about how to measure success or failure, or the intervention and remediation would like if required. As with most companies, Yahoo did not design their work experience, they just let it happen.

Distributed Work Professional Development
Mayer presumably experienced much of her career inside an office. Experience is a powerful crutch. People tend to fall back on experience rather than emerging behavior when things need correction. Working in a distributed fashion is not unusual for individuals, which is why many take to it so readily. Working is a cubicle or working at the kitchen table offers little difference when a back is arched aggressively toward a monitor and fingers type furiously away.

Managing people is different. Designing work experiences is different. Conversations are different. Rarely do companies invest in grappling with the differences and helping both the worker and the manager understand what they need to do to be successful—including the policies and practice. Once a work experience is designed, it must be communicated and inculcated. And this doesn’t mean a short course or an annual video lecture with a few inane questions to see if you still get it—it means a constant, ongoing endeavor to understand how people are working, how work conditions are affecting results and what needs to change to improve performance, or keep it at desirable levels. Workers and managers need to develop professionally together, not apart, because telecommuting is a feedback loop, not a linear activity.

Giving Time to Get Time
If Mayer completely reverts to a hierarchical, command-and-control management style, we may also see her monitoring for personal calls made on company supplied equipment, but I doubt Yahoo employees will see that kind of management reversion. In my early career, I was issued a phone code that allowed me to access an outside line. The telephone system could then report every call, its destination and its duration. People guarded these codes better than people secure passwords today. Rarely did any manager bring up the reports though, unless they were trying to make a case or someone was pretty blatantly abusing their privileges. These systems represented a clear demarcation between work and life. As people started acquiring their own phones which couldn’t be traced, telephone monitoring became less relevant.

But that wasn’t the only reason. More subtly, as people were able to connect tangibly to work via phone, e-mail and eventually the Internet, they started to give their personal time to the company so that the occasional call to the wife, the boyfriend, or placing an order on Amazon, seemed more give-and-take than violation of the Company Temporal Code. People no longer worked 9-to-5. They didn’t leave work in the rearview with their departure from the office—they integrated work into their lives. People now work whenever they feel compelled, and many often feel compelled on dates and vacations, even in the hospital. What Mayer doesn’t realize is that putting people back into perceived physical and temporal constraints may erode this goodwill of work and actually reduce, rather than increase, engagement.

Phoning in a Conclusion
I’m working from home for more than one client today, so I obviously have a bias. Working from my home office does, and has for years, been much more productive for me than time spent commuting in traffic, and I produce a lower carbon footprint. Don’t get me wrong, I like cavorting with colleagues as much as the next person, but when I’m doing my work, I prefer an environment I can control, where my boss or client feels compelled to schedule and interruption rather than just stop by.

If Mayer did have employees hiding poor performance behind telecommuting the failure was not the concept, but the practice implemented by Yahoo managers. Seldom do radical departures from existing practice, especially retrograde actions benefit the company or its workers. Organizations with a perceived problem should address the problem directly. Successful telecommuting exists, and it can be studied. If Yahoo implemented telecommuting as poorly as they did other pre-Mayer decisions , then the better answer would have been intervention and correction, not abandonment.

I hope Mayer is not being overly assertive just to prove she can be so. That would not bode well for Yahoo or Mayer. Sometimes managers do need to eliminate bad investments, legacy divisions, or poorly performing employees, but telecommuting remains a growing practice, and one that pays dividends to those who do it well. Calling back the troops was the wrong area for Mayer to show her assertiveness. This decision has no bearing on Yahoo as a business, and in many ways, it fails to reinforce some of their core business and value propositions.

Even if Mayer’s decision ultimately proves more or less impactful to Yahoo’s workforce and business, Mayer has generated a flurry of serious discussion around telecommuting, remote work and distributed teams. Some may see Yahoo’s decision to revoke telecommuting as an inflection point, but more likely, Yahoo’s action will spur reexaminations and improvements in the telecommuting and management practices of other firms, which would be a good thing.

[Image: Flickr user R. B. Reed]

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2 Comments

  • Ellie Shoja

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Daniel. Mayer had a real opportunity to identify and deal with the elements that did and did not work within Yahoo’s telework program. With just a small amount of effort and the use of existing technological solutions available today, she could have pinpointed and dealt with those employees in hiding, rewarded those employees who produced high quality work despite the shoddy management, and provided management training that address its current needs. She could have saved herself the headache of this international controversy and improved employee morale while increasing productivity. I recommend www.TransparentBusiness.com, a tool that can be used in conjunction with or in addition to the managements tools you provide in this article. This web-based application makes it easy to manage remote employees because it keeps track of the remote worker’s hours, activities, and progress.

  • Milton

    Technology is always changing so we should make it a point to keep up with all the latest innovations and adopt them into your work plan. Time tracking tools like Worksnaps (http://worksnaps.net) can also help multiple employees stay on task on the same project. You can see what one another are doing and check off milestones to remain on track. Managing remote employee workloads is a little different from the office but modern technology offers many resources that make it possible to telecommute and keep your business running smoothly.