REMOTE WORKING: A leadership challenge

Remote working or working from home is not new but it triggered the wrath of people when Marissa Mayer CEO Yahoo sent an internal memo stating that “Yahoo employees who work remotely relocate to company facilities starting June 2013” with the diktat “Employees who work from home must comply without exception or quit.” The incensed Yahoo employees as well as the cult followers of ‘working from home’ religion, without any linger, took to blogging their incendiary opinions and the web is awash with innumerable thoughts and debates. Should organizations encourage employees, whose functional role doesn’t mandate any office team interaction, to work from home? A laptop with a camera, video conferencing facility, a mobile phone, Internet, tools with virtual collaboration, self-discipline, enclosed space that shuts out noise and no distractions from kids, family or television are the simple bare necessities these days to transform one’s home into a highly productive office.

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Conventional thought spawns the assumption that when working from home, one eventually succumbs to domestic bliss and how much ever one shields one’s self-discipline from extremities, a flight of fancy will distract one from the prescribed 8 hours of dedicated work and with passage of time this behaviour could escalate thereby shaving off productive hours. This thought ought to be antiquated as gone are the days where people work for merely a pay cheque. These days a sizeable lot are ambitious, goal oriented, intrinsically motivated, want a share of the action as in stock options and genuinely associated with the company to make a difference. Micromanaging, supervising or taming them by making them work in the presence of corporate lens can only discourage their sacrilization towards work.

Indubitably for creative work such as advertising or for software teamwork and ideation perhaps coming to office to exchange ideas is justified but a broad sweep discouragement on remote working is a bit obstinate. Selective remote working can be instituted. Coming to office is an industrial age concept where communication tools were primitive, infrastructure for collaborative conferencing etc. were considered mere next generation wish list. As rightly surmised by Sir Richard Branson “If you provide the right technology to keep in touch, maintain regular communication and get the right balance between remote and office working, people will be motivated to work responsibly, quickly and with high quality.” Statistics supporting remote working is plentiful and on the rise but its implementation cannot be manifested as an ‘altruistic dole out’ to all employees at all times. Perhaps this is what Marissa wanted to restrain a little.

Yahoo has been laboring it for a while with leadership issues, look at the tenure of Yahoo’s past CEO’s from 2009; Ross Levinsohn lasted 64 days, Scott Thompson lasted 130 days, Tim Morse lasted 120 days, Carol Bartz lasted 966 days. In such a terrain where reconstruction task is allocated to Marissa, she would have taken a statistical review of remote working from her team and arrived at an informed decision, as she felt appropriate then. At a later date as she is convinced about organizational maturity w.r.t remote working, rescinding her precondition and allowing people to work from home is not to be construed as a ‘succumb to pressure’ attitude. Captions do float around such as ‘Marissa’s got it wrong’ but then CEO’s are supposed to take multiple stance to get the stock price and stakeholders trust back in the firm hence CEO’s decisions are dynamic and reversal of strategy at a later date is not to be taken as a decision impairment. After Yahoo, HP followed suit in terms of ‘no remote working’ with Meg Whitman, CEO saying, “During this critical turnaround period, HP needs all hands on deck.”

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Marissa’s ‘no remote working’ stance is much bandied about today but this is a bit unjust. Yes it is true, remote working has significant merits and in 2014 remote working has only gained more momentum with firms such as Xerox, Dell, American Express, United Health Group, ADP and others conferring upon their employees, the firm’s malleability and stance w.r.t remote working. Education, Government, Healthcare, Computer & IT, Finance & Accounts, Arts etc. are the typical industries that see such ‘work from home’ concurrence from their employers but it is still in experimentation stage and not an epidemic in corporate circles yet. The circumstance under which Marissa took over Yahoo was one where the firm was moving towards terminal enfeeblement. Perhaps remote working was taken for granted and employees may have abused the leniency. One of the rationale that Marissa Mayer gave was that “people are more productive when they’re alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”

Again clever arguments were constructed that people could be more innovative and collaborative with remote working as well and this is also true but the idea is not to incisively analyse comparative and combative statistics. Inherently there is nothing wrong in Marissa’s statement, innovation and collaboration is a shade better fostered in an office environment. Since her taking over as CEO, Yahoo stock has risen 73 % in value. One can attribute it to other factors but if corporate America kicks a CEO due to stock price tumble then it is only equitable that they ought to acknowledge the CEO’s positioning and contribution when the stock surges. So far she seems to soak a bond of credence with the stakeholders but innovation dynamics are such that any lack of cutting edge product, service, brand or a few botched acquisitions can make any behemoth vanish from the business arena in 6 months.

 The purpose of this blog is not to tarnish or embellish the image of Marissa; on the contrary she is absolutely extraneous to our discussions. It is about remote working and companies who are reticent to allow remote working do so for what reason:

  • Is working from home an image problem for the company.
  • Is it to genuinely foster teamwork, interaction, communication etc.
  • Is it about controlling the employees and micromanaging them in physical proximity.
  • Is it the perception that the ability to exercise self-restraint by an employee may be a possibility but so too is distraction whilst remote working.

 Though explicitly evident and rudimentary, let us revisit a few of its pros and cons in clinical terms:

 ADVANTAGES OF COMING TO OFFICE:

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  • Interaction with fellow colleagues, own teams, getting ideas and inspiration from office environment. Learning from others experiences.
  • Office offers a more ‘fenced in’ discipline. People do squander away time on social networking sites (perhaps not due to intention but unconscious compulsion) but goal-oriented employees with a mission would value their time. If they don’t then wherever they are they would squander away precious bandwidth (be it office or home).
  • A pat from the boss, encouragement from peers, a little appreciation, a tad of sociability and validation, basically office can provide an amalgam of emotional respite, stress alleviation and spike in motivation levels as against remotely working shrouded in obsessive loneliness.
  • Leadership, managerial talent and skill development in terms of handling a team can be sharpened whilst in office.
  • Commuting time can be used for non-work based tasks such as reading a newspaper, listening to a podcast, reading a book, listening to news and so forth. Commute time is never lost for people who know how to gainfully use it. Yes tube trains in London can be overcrowding but an hour of inspirational podcast about any pertinent topic could invigorate.
  • Nice office environment, corporate culture, exchange of humour.
  • Exercise whilst commuting to and fro itself induces an active life.
  • Certain brainstorming meetings have to happen face to face particularly in big high-tech and creative companies who produce path-breaking concepts and innovation.

ADVANTAGES OF WORKING FROM HOME:

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  • Huge gains for the organization in terms of consolidation of space and infrastructure costs. In expensive cities such as London, New York, Tokyo etc. where real estate prices are celestial, this is the decision shifter. SME’s look for such benefits.
  • Get long manageable chunks of time that grant focus and concentration which is needed to get important tasks done.
  • If there is inclement weather there is no loss of commute time in to and fro travel and further dress up and dress down time loss is also avoided.
  • Distraction from peer group, lunch, cafeteria breaks, meetings etc. avoided.
  • Can go to gym, jogging, swimming etc. in the morning with a little more latitude.
  • Motivating environment to work in one’s own habituated ergonomic surroundings. Can also be a distraction for some.
  • With chatting, instant messaging, texting, video conferencing and other tools, accessibility of every employee on-line is very high hence a virtual office can be created.

CONCLUSION:

It is only the reversal in behaviour that infuriates people hence the exasperation at Marissa Mayer. Becoming vindictive to the organization and wasting time to prove a point is calamitous for own growth instead if one is viscerally opposed to coming to office, quit and find a firm that allows it. If an organization doesn’t permit working from home from the very onset, people get used to the office and there are no complaints. Not that one must adopt such a discouragement of remote working after all, if it grants tremendous economic leverage and productivity then why not rally to the cause. A hybrid model (home + office) can be applied where certain functions can be allowed the consideration of remote working as in sales where either one meets the client or is involved in sales administration aspects of reporting, prospecting, proposal evaluation, ideation etc.

Remote working is not about advantages vs. disadvantages, it is about maturity of the organization and what systems are put in place to ensure employee engagement, measurement and self-motivation. Home workers are not skivers or work shirkers. They need to be goal oriented, ambitious, sincere and accomplishment oriented. Hire such people and organizational systems must take care of their engagement with the firm. Regularly monitor their KPI’s. Leaders must be wary about not gnawing on the employee’s leg like a dog on the street after remote working is allowed in order to monitor them. Allow autonomy with a high degree of accountability.

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