Is Banning Remote Work Really the Answer for a Struggling Company?

Remote work is under siege at a number of high profile companies, including Best Buy, Yahoo, and now HP.

But is banning remote work really the answer for these struggling companies?

Or are these desperate CEOs mortgaging their companies’ futures to show that they’re “doing something” about the problem?

HP CEO Meg Whitman bans remote work

That didn’t take long.

Meg Whitman of HP followed the lead of Marissa Mayer (CEO of fellow 90’s dinosaur, Yahoo), in banning remote workers from “the new HP” (referred to in an internal policy as the “HP Way Now”).

GigaOM has the memo setting forth the new policy, which reads in pertinent part:

During this critical turnaround period, HP needs all hands on deck. We recognize that in the past, we may have asked certain employees to work from home for various reasons. We now need to build a stronger culture of engagement and collaboration and the more employees we get into the office the better company we will be.

Echoes of Mayer’s similar call earlier in the year to bring all of Yahoo’s workers under one (figurative) roof. The argument is that collaboration and engagement suffer when some employees work from remote locations.

As you might imagine, the remote working stalwarts at 37signals (who have a new book out on the very subject) didn’t hesitate to eviscerate this logic:

Here’s a few thoughts: Perhaps HP isn’t sinking because Jane works from home, avoids the commute, and has more time to spend on hobbies and family? Perhaps HP is sinking because of strategic and managerial mismanagement? Perhaps morale won’t actually improve until the beatings stop?

So who’s right?

What CEOs of Floundering Companies Don’t Get

When a CEO is charged with turning around a poorly performing company like Yahoo or HP, they have to show that they mean business. That they’re doing something.

The need to do something leads to a cognitive trap that professor and author of Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, calls naive interventionism.

Naive intervention is when the preference to “do something” over nothing leads to intervention without regard to negative side effects.

The easiest solution for leaders put in this situation is to blame unengaged employees. Who else are they going to blame?

  • The board that steered the company into ruin? Nope, they write the CEO’s checks (figuratively, if not literally).
  • The shareholders who can only think ahead one quarter? No again, since antagonizing Wall Street could send the stock spiralling, and a falling share price is the fastest way to get fired as a CEO.
  • What about the products themselves, maybe the company makes products that are strictly inferior to their competitor’s? No dice, a company’s CEO has to drink the “best in class” Kool-Aid before even taking the job.

So that leaves no other scapegoats left except the employees, and the remote workers are easy targets.

Aren’t they less engaged and productive since no one sees them hunched up over a laptop in a cubicle? Aren’t they showing that they don’t have an “all hands on deck” mentality in this time of crisis? Aren’t they demonstrating that they’re not dedicated to the company?

Despite the slew of evidence that suggests that remote worker do as well if not better than their in-office colleagues, the Face-Time Bias is still alive and well in Corporate America.

The “all hands on deck” call is a form of naive intervention because it fails to consider the potential damage down the road.

Are these companies going to be in a position to hire talented, motivated individuals in the future, many of whom are more interested in flexibility and results than rigidity and process?

Wasn’t the lack of talent at these companies one of the principal reasons they got into trouble in the first place?

Companies like HP and Yahoo were struggling to recruit Hedgehog-level talent anyway, since those types are more likely to work at a successful competitor down the street.

Now, not only are these companies fight a public perception of being second-class, they’re also looking at the stigma of being a regressive place to work.

How’s that for a turnaround?

What Agile Has to Say About the Remote Office

Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.

The most efficient and effective method of
conveying information to and within a development
team is face-to-face conversation.

The Agile Manifesto

These are two of the Twelve Principles of the Agile Manifesto. It’s interesting to note that people often don’t see the inherent conflict between these two Principles, even those who work with capital “A” Agile techniques all the time.

What happens when “motivated individuals” need the “environment and support” that isn’t conducive to “face-to-face conversation” in one central office? Do you still “trust them to get the job done”?

37signals has an interesting perspective on this tension, which they addressed in a post that appeared just a few days before the Meg Whitman memo was leaked:

The interesting, and tricky, part of choosing a work pattern is comparing these different worlds. What’s the value of a group of people who a) can only be picked from amongst those within a 30-mile radius of a specific office, b) who have to deal with the indignity of a hour-long daily commute, c) but who’s Agile with that capital A?

Versus a team composed of a) the best talent you could find, regardless of where they live, and b) who has the freedom to work their own schedule, c) but can’t do the literal daily stand-up meeting or pair in front of the same physical computer?

37signals concludes that the latter set of qualities is more desirable. But you’d expect them to.

What CEOs like Whitman and Mayer are appealing to is the broader public, which hasn’t come to terms with what an “office” means in the New World of Work.

The signal to Wall Street that Whitman and Mayer are sending is that they mean business. It’s an appeal to an old-school mentality that says you aren’t productive unless you sit in a sterile office chained to a desk from 9 to 5 every day.

And it might work. In the short-term.

But long-term? Let’s just say that resisting large, sweeping, transformative megatrends is not a winner’s game.

Scott Boyar, an associate professor in the Department of Management, Information Systems and Quantitative Methods at the University of Alabama-Birmingham Collat School of Business, related the following 3 rules of thumb to ScienceDaily:

“The success of an employee working from home depends on the person, on the job and on the training the organization provides to do that role remotely,” Boyar said. “An organization has a lot of responsibility when letting workers go virtual, but the employee carries a lot of it too. There are questions they should ask themselves.”

• Does it fit my personality and preference for integrating work into my family environment?
• Can I structure my time and stay motivated to work throughout the day?
• Will I fight the temptation to want to skip workdays altogether?

Boyar ultimately suggests that the best balance depends on each individual. Some may find that a completely remote experience works for them, while others may wish to split time between home and office.

The point is to find a workplace that’s receptive to the idea that the environment that gives you the best chance to succeed might not necessarily be an office.

Companies that preemptively take this option off the table are not going to be in a good position to win future talent.

The reality of the Work Anywhere, Anytime world is here to stay. Smartphones, email, and instant messaging aren’t going anywhere.

There’s no way to cram the genie back into the bottle on this one. No matter how much CEOs may want to demonstrate that they’re “doing something” to improve struggling companies.

Photo Credit: katiew via Compfight cc

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