The world of work anywhere, anytime is here to stay, despite policy reversals at Yahoo and Best Buy.
Here’s what you need to know about telecommuting and remote work.
Since its heady days in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Yahoo and its employees have seen some rough years. Inconsistent vision, takeover attempts, and CEO after CEO led to a lost decade for Yahoo and its shareholders.
Marissa Mayer, one of the early employees of Google and its most high-profile female executive, was tapped in 2012 to become CEO of Yahoo. The board of directors and Yahoo shareholders expected her experience working for a winner would transform the beleaguered company.
One of Mayer’s first initiatives? Eliminating the remote work policy at Yahoo.
Mayer argued the remote work policy inhibited creativity. Face-to-face interactions of a random, serendipitous nature lead to breakthroughs. James Surowicki, writing for The New Yorker, agreed, claiming that creativity plummeted with work-from-anywhere arrangements.
Virgin Group chairman and entrepreneur extraordinaire Richard Branson chimed in with his own thoughts on Yahoo’s reversal of policy, calling it “perplexing”. He also wrote “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.”
David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of 37signals and co-author of the upcoming book REMOTE: Office Not Required, had his own unique view. As one of the heads of a company with an entirely remote team, Hansson argued the move signaled a lack of trust by senior management in Yahoo employees:
Great work simply doesn’t happen in environments with so little trust. Revoking the “yard time privileges” like this reeks of suspicions that go far beyond just people with remote work arrangements. Read this line one more time: “please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration”. When management has to lay it on so thick that they don’t trust you with an afternoon at home waiting for the cable guy without a stern “please think of the company”, you know something is horribly broken.
So who’s right, Mayer and the face-to-face crowd or Branson and 37signals?
And regardless of who is right, does it matter in the face of the relentless ascent of anywhere, anytime work?
The Rise of Anywhere, Anytime Work
Two megatrends, more than any other, are transforming the way we work.
The first is the virtualizing of work. Work itself has moved from the factory floor and the shipping yard to the office and the computer. The virtualizing of work has allowed technologically-savvy companies to give employees the ability to work and be “on call” 24/7. The current phase of this economy can be characterized by transition. This transition is the result of the virtualizing of work.
The second megatrend that will drive the future of work is the “Your Data Anywhere” movement spurred on by companies like Dropbox, Amazon, Google, and others. The virtualizing of work now happens at anytime, from anywhere.
When the virtualizing of work (anytime) and the Your Data Anywhere movement (anywhere) combine, they destroy the status quo. The rationale for the modern workplace, where all employees go to a certain place for a set time to respond to a rigid hierarchy and rigid decision structure, no longer makes sense in a world where work can be done at anytime, from anywhere with your business’s data.
The rise of anywhere, anytime work can be frightening. As any entrepreneur will tell you, setting your own hours can be a mixed blessing. The lines between work and life can blur until the work never stops.
At the same time, the anywhere, anytime workplace will free us from the chains of the factory mode of work to produce products and services that truly engage and enrich us as human beings.
In the future, no one will telecommute
The nature of work is changing. It’s always changing, but after a relatively stable period after the Industrial Revolution, it’s undergoing a major paradigm shift.
In the Industrial Age, people went from farming and ranching to working as interchangeable employees in a factory. In the Information Age, knowledge workers went to air-conditioned offices with telephones, fax machines, and then computers.
The Internet Revolution signals another major change in the way we work. The Internet Age is the logical conclusion to the end of the Information Age and its successor. As more and more of our work escaped the confines of personal hard drives and company servers, information made its way onto the Internet.
It used to be that the best communication tools were at your office. Your office phone and the private office exchange was the best telephone system on the planet. The Internet was the fastest at the office. Now you have Skype and Voice over Internet and cell phones and broadband at home.
The tools available to the people who work at home are the same, if not better, than the tools available at the office.
Given all the other benefits to working at home, like decreased overhead, increased productivity and comfort, the logic of forcing hundreds of people from all different kinds of locations to stay chained to their desks in the same place no longer made sense.
The ability to work anywhere, anytime has made it so you could work from the comfort of your own home. Or a beach in Phuket. Or a cabin in the Swiss Alps. As long as you have an internet connection, you can work from anywhere, at anytime. So as a business owner, why wouldn’t you?
A January 2012 Ipsos/Reuters poll found that close to one in five workers on the planet “work remotely from their office, communicating by email, phone or online chats, either daily or occasionally.”
In the future, no one will telecommute because to telecommute will be the same as to work. And we won’t remember why we distinguished between working at an office and working at a cafe.
Why your employer wants to keep you chained to work technology
We’ve all experienced it. Call it the “Sunday/Monday Technology Divide.”
On Sunday evening, we’re super-productive users of personal technology that seems to come straight out of Star Trek. We use our incredible smartphones to stay connected to friends across the globe, browse spyware-free on our meticulously personalized laptops, all while listening to our personal music mix on high-end audiophile headphones.
Then on Monday, we go to work.
The red voicemail light blinks on our office dumbphones, its messages untranscribed because work technology is not designed for an agile future. It does one thing and one thing only (and not very well). Our ugly, inefficient work PC’s connect us to a firewalled, crippled Internet. We cannot shake the sense that our bosses are peeking over our shoulders with a host of keylogging spyware tracking our movements online. Instead of music, there is the drone of fluorescent lights and the distracting chatter of the Watercooler Gang a few cubicles away.
Work technology used to be the state of the art. Now, personal technology has eclipsed the devices we have at work in terms of design, utility, and efficiency.
Yet, the corporate command-and-control structure keep us chained to outdated work technology. Traditional management can’t stand unmonitored, uncontrolled devices penetrating the bubble of the office.
The reason is simple. Like any other status quo defender they want control—even at the expense of employee autonomy.
Heaven forbid if you were actually productive at work.
What Agile Has to Say About Remote Work
The most efficient and effective method of
conveying information to and within a development
team is face-to-face conversation.
Agile development has historically emphasized daily standup meetings and face-to-face interaction, meaning colocation whenever possible. Heck, it’s written right there in the Agile Manifesto!
But a new generation of agile thinkers are questioning the requirement of colocation, including 37signals above.
Mishkin Berteig of Agile Advice makes the point that distributed teams work if “there is a compelling strategic reason that trumps the hit you will take financially and morale-wise.” Berteig argues that setting core hours, using good videoconferencing technology, and vigilance with always-on communication tools can all mitigate the downsides of a work anywhere, anytime team.
Ultimately, agile has a few other principles that I think are just as important as the principle of working face-to-face:
Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.
Agile processes promote sustainable development.
The sponsors, developers, and users should be able
to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
Working software is the primary measure of progress.
Given the emphasis on the values of trust, sustainability, and working product in the Agile Manifesto, it’s not an open-and-shut case against remote working. As long as you meet the objectives of agile, the agile mindset is compatible with the anywhere, anytime workforce.
The Downsides of Anywhere, Anytime Work
It’s not all roses and sunshine for anywhere, anytime work. These are the most common downsides to distributed teams, remote work, and an always-on workforce:
1. Accountability suffers. A U.S. government agency, the Office of Personnel Management, failed to implement teleworking in a successful manner. According to Slate, “senior managers couldn’t evaluate performance of their employees, the quality of work deteriorated, and employees had little idea whether they were putting in enough time and effort.”
2. It’s not environmentally friendly. As it turns out, the dream of saving the environment through remote work hasn’t borne fruit. By colocating everyone, companies can save on electricity, heating, and air conditioning. If everyone works from a different place, more lights are on and more energy is consumed (which isn’t offset by driving less).
3. You get fatter. Yep, it’s true. Rolling out of bed and reaching for your laptop instead of driving to work can make you fatter and less healthy. I guess even walking back and forth to the bathroom to kill time counts as exerices.
4. Work-life balance goes away. For the less disciplined, the ability to work anywhere, anytime means “work everywhere, all the time.” This is a big pitfall for people who are prone to burnout syndrome. The temptation to work all the time is there, especially if you work for bad bosses at a psychopathic corporation.
None of the above is inevitable. You can make remote working work for you. But it requires intelligence, accountability, and vigilance.
The work anywhere, anytime revolution is already upon us. Even if firms like Yahoo and Best Buy seem to be backtracking on their telecommuting policies, this resistance won’t last. The megatrend of work-life integration will win out.
The question is how you will respond to the change and whether you will be equipped to thrive.
Image by philcampbell.