It’s fair to say that there’s been a huge amount written about Marissa Mayer’s decision to call people back to the office. The original memo is here. There’s a lot to be said about this, but I want to focus on a couple of things that haven’t been said.

Smart People – Dumb Decisions?

If someone smart makes (what looks like) a dumb decision, then they probably know something you don’t. There is, of course, a chance that you know something they don’t, but the further away from the situation you are, the less likely that is. I spend a large proportion of my time hopping between the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of organisations. It means I get to watch decisions get made, communicated and received. Almost every time I hear someone say “that was a dumb decision.” the comment is from someone who doesn’t have access to the same information as the CEO, either because the CEO failed to communicate the context, or because the CEO was prevented from communicating the context. Sometimes we do have additional information or experience, but Marissa Mayer saw the situation at Yahoo! and made a judgement call. I’m pretty sure she knows more about what is happening inside of Yahoo! than any of us do – and that includes disgruntled ex-employees. A few weeks on, and it seems to be working.

So, Working From Home is Dead, Right?

Not so much. There are two very different things here, and I’m going to very deliberately step away from the context of Yahoo! to talk about them. There are two root causes for home working to fail, and they are:

  1. Poor management now.
  2. Poor management in the past.

‘Managing’ remote employees requires a mature and confident approach. If an employee is in the office, it is easy to ‘feel’ like they are being effectively managed, because they can be observed. That’s an illusion accepted by junior, ineffective managers. The business isn’t paying for someone to sit at a desk, its paying someone to be productive. If I am measuring output (what was created) rather than activity (movement/location), then at the end of the day, I can measure that just as well if the employee is at home. So that’s the first management failure: valuing presence over productivity. Output beats contact, unless you are running a social club – Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.

Fire Up the Factory

If effective home working is simply a matter of effective measurement, then why do so many businesses struggle with it? Quite simply: Most of us aren’t running a factory, we’re running a studio. In a factory it is easy to measure output: it’s a matter of quantity that meets a quality threshold :- 4,000 working hammers and we’re done. In a factory, work is easily identified and quantified. It is also individualistic and compartmentalised, making it relatively simple to measure the impact of each individual worker or machine. Yes, there are production line dependencies, but it’s pretty easy to spot the robot that has crashed or taken an extended lunch break.

The Studio

Most knowledge-lead businesses are much more like a studio. Output is relatively hard to quantify, except when it is close to the sales process. You only truly know what a painting is worth at the moment it is sold, not a moment before or a moment after. It is also much harder to identify each person’s contribution to the work. What of the person who cleaned the brushes? The person who created the set? The person who fetched the paint? The completion of products is infrequent and sporadic, and it is hard to identify each individuals contribution. And so it is with knowledge work.

A product manager or designer might launch four products a year. That doesn’t give many measurement points. It is very hard to measure progress on a weekly, let alone a daily basis. And who’s work was it anyway? The engineers’? The sales person who provided input? The output is a collaborative effort, in fact the effort may be the collaboration itself. Even if you don’t view your office as a studio, if you are reading this, it is probably more like a studio than a factory.

It’s Not Where You Started From

There are two much larger problems than management and measurement, and the solutions to them actually take management and measurement off of the table as issues. These are, I suspect, the dominant issues at Yahoo! right now:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Can we achieve it?

The biggest challenge in a distributed environment, like a home working one, is alignment. Alignment is the critical difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Which of these is better:

  • One person achieving one thing that moves the business towards a strategic objective.
  • One hundred people, each doing ten things towards five irrelevant goals.

Anti-work is corrosive to a businesses, and yet in survey after survey, we find that most workers in a business either don’t know what the goals of the business are, or are working towards a set of goals that were long-since abandoned, updated or replaced by the leadership team.

It’s Where You Are Going

Clearly set and communicated goals, wrapped in a set of principles that codify ‘how we get things done here’ are the framework that allows people to work both independently, interdependently and flexibly. Goals need to be broken down into meaningful steps (we call these Milestones), so that there is an objective way to establish if things are going off track, failing to progress, or need revising. Business changes rapidly, and changing goals mid-course is a legitimate course of action, although if it happens too frequently, the goal-setting process probably needs carefully looking at. If people know where they are going, they will get there – provided they are motivated! Here is the most fundamental failure of management: The failure to believe, and create belief. It is all very well outlining your ship’s journey, but if your crew aren’t bought¬†into the voyage, then there’s a mutiny ahead. And that’s the best outcome. Worse is an unhappy, meandering journey that doesn’t reach any particular destination.

Better Together or Better Apart?

There is a common myth that having employees in the office will fix the motivation issue. It might do so in a factory, although that is debatable, but it definitely doesn’t do so in the studio. Presenteeism is far more dangerous in the office. One dissatisfied employee can demotivate and entire team, if not an entire organisation. Yes, if people have lost sight of where the business is going, or have lost their belief that, as a team, they can achieve great things, then it’s time to get people back together. Remote working is founded on trust. Actually, all collaborative working is founded on trust, and trust comes out of relationship. People do need to meet face to face, from time to time.

Exception Becoming Normality

The creative energy of the (physical) water cooler conversation is a powerful binding force. Seeing family photos and personal clutter at a fellow employee’s desk all help to create rounded characters that we either want to work with, or know how to work with. When you are running a business, you are running a social club. When fellow workers are de-humanised into bland corporatized stereotypes, disenchantment, if not malfeasance, is not far behind.

People, from the management team, to the latest hire, need to be real and connected. Physical co-location can help with that, but it isn’t always the answer, and it certainly isn’t the only answer. It depends on the type of work, and the type of working. People often convolute two different things. Let’s call them “homeworking” and “teleworking” – the names aren’t actually important, it’s the idea that there are two different types of remote working: One where the home is the permanent place of work, the other where the business office is the main location, but work can happen at other locations. Most customer-facing roles involve at least some degree of teleworking – I’m not quite sure I like the image that the words “road warrior” conjures up, but sales people seem to have (quite literally) run with the term. Again, let’s not fuss over the definition, other than making the point that almost every business operates along a continuum of home to office-based work, and employees operate along that continuum too. Different points on the scale have different benefits and challenges, and require different kinds of infrastructure to work effectively.

My Time is Not Your Time

I think it is probably Paul Graham who most popularised the idea of the different types of different time slicing in business for managers and makers. I alternate between managing, consulting and coding. When I’m managing, I’m operating in very small slices of time. Interruptions are frequent, and part of the flow. Decisions are made in minutes, if not seconds, and then I’m on to the next thing. When I’m consulting, I am at the mercy of other people’s diaries. I’m working in hourly chunks, that’s the rhythm of meetings (or billing). When I’m coding, I’m lost in thought. A two minute interruption can set me back hours. Coding, at least the way I code, is like building a Lego house in your head. Mentally examining each piece, working out where it fits and arranging it. When the phone goes off, it’s like a parent coming into the bedroom with a hoover and an anger management problem. Boom. Start again.

What Works Well at Home?

It’s probably no surprise then, that different types of work suit different types of environment. Note that I say “work” there, not “role” There is a time and a place for homeworking in almost every role. As a manager, it makes sense to be in the office, unless, of course, your staff aren’t. Actually, it’s not about location, it’s about availability. Having Skype and Milestone Planner fired up makes it easy for me to see what needs actioning, answer quick queries, and touch base with the rest of the team. When I’m consulting the diary is king, Skype is off, and the phone is on silent. I am as happy in an office meeting room as I am in a quite coffee shop. When I’m coding, I usually want to be at home, with the phone off, real-time comms shutdown and my two 30 inch monitors keeping the room warm. I often end up coding at night; There’s something about the quiet of the early hours that makes me especially productive.

Yes, there is much about my role that is unique, but the reality remains that the choice of location isn’t a binary one. I know people who are glad to get into the office; either they don’t like the solitude of being home alone, or don’t have a space where they aren’t being climbed over by an overly enthusiastic toddler or disturbed by a noisy neighbour. I also know people whose productivity and creativity in the office is destroyed by constant interruptions and the levels of noise pollution inherent in the kinds of open-plan offices that are so de-regur which many HR folks.

Our business is built upon work force flexibility. I strongly believe that, in the long term, it will enable us to attract and retain talent that is inaccessible to some of our would-be competitors. Sometimes people need to be at home to take a delivery, deal with a child-care logistics issue, or just to concentrate. And if they have a sniffy cold, I am very happy for them to keep that at home, away from the rest of the team. It’s not about when or where people work, it’s about what they get done. Different types of work are best suited to different environments, and in today’s kind of jobs, we are rarely doing the same kinds of work all of the time. I am very sure the same is probably true for your work and your business. Then there’s the environmental benefits and all of that time recouped from commuting.

But Will They Work?

The most common push back I hear about home working is this: Surely people don’t work when they are at home. And, believe this or not, I’ve come across more than one business where “working from home for the day” does actually seem to mean “taking the day off.” That’s not typical, trust me! Factories need managers. Studios need leaders. Motivating team members, and being sure that they will do the right thing is not a location problem. Is a leadership problem. Yes, there is a fine art to accountability – you will need to agree and track outcomes. Yes, you will need some tools to support you (and we’d love you to talk to us about that :) ). Yes, you might need some leadership training for your team leaders (we can point you to some great folks). But by being flexible about where people work, you are going to create a more flexible, better designed business. It gives the ability to attract unique talent, and keep people engaged in the business. Oh, and by the way, you’ll probably fix your disaster recovery challenges at the same time.