Anyone who reads this blog has probably also read about, or heard of the recent policy from Marissa Mayer at Yahoo recalling home-office based employees back to the office (Bing search here in case you’ve been under a rock). Most of the reactions I’ve seen to this policy are correctly identifying this as a management problem (or a worker-milking-the-system) problem, and I agree with that assessment.
Of course, remote workers all over the internet are completely up in arms whether they work at Yahoo or not. Perhaps they’re afraid that their employer will follow suit (not-likely), or they don’t want to be discovered as yet-another-wfh-miler (slightly more likely), or they feel like their choice of work method is being threatened by the publicity of this choice (most likely).
To be clear, I am completely supportive of working from home. I’m fortunate enough to have an employer and a history of managers who let me work from home – or remotely as needed. In fact, the recent news reminded me that after I worked remotely for two solid weeks in the summer of 2011, I wrote up some thoughts for my (then) manager. Given that there’s nothing confidential in that write up, I’m sharing it unedited below as fodder for discussion.
From: Alan Page
Date: August 3, 2011
Subject: Working the Swing Shift in France
This summer, I’m spending two weeks working from Toulouse, France. My family came here for a vacation (and to house sit for some friends of friends). I had planned to only stay for about 10 days, but due to a variety of circumstances, I decided to extend my trip and stay with my family for an additional two weeks. I asked Ross if I could work from France for a few weeks and he graciously allowed me to do so.
The house we’re staying in has a reasonably fast internet connection as well as an office where the door shuts, so a reasonable workspace wasn’t a problem. I decided that I’d work Redmond hours (I start work between 4:00 and 6:00 pm and work until 2:00 or 3:00am). There was no requirement that I align my work with Redmond time, but it allowed me to spend some time on daytrips with my family during the day before beginning the workday. I was also able to attend a fair number of meetings over Lync.
I’ve worked from home before and have never had a problem staying focused on work outside of the workplace (I probably learned to excel in this area while writing hwtsam on evenings and weekends). My family (fortunately) “gets” that I’m working even though I’m close by and leaves me alone to concentrate.
One highlight of the experience is that Lync has worked flawlessly. I’ve made several calls to Redmond, and attended several meetings. Audio and video have worked well, and it’s helped keep me connected much of the time.
I was reflecting on my first week of working remotely, and had a bit of an insight. I have been able to get a ton of work done – but to be fair and honest, it’s different work than I would have done had I been in Redmond. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, since some of the things I’ve worked on (e.g. writing up thoughts and experimenting with fault injection, figuring out how Lync should approach model-based testing, writing up debugging tutorials, or polishing up a thinkweek paper) are the right work for me to do, but it seems that working remotely changes priorities slightly. By this, I mean that a big part of my typical role involves interacting with people on the team in a somewhat random pattern – e.g. answering questions in the hallway, discussing topics of the day over lunch, or following up with people 1:1 after meetings. Not all Microsoft roles involve this sort of interaction, but it seems difficult to interact in this manner remotely.
One example I thought of that reflects the above is this scenario: Say Josh and Bob are talking in Josh’s office. I overhear the conversation and have some relevant (and valuable!) thoughts, so I get up, poke my head in and join the conversation. That scenario doesn’t happen if I’m not there.
An interesting Lync feature based on this would work like this. Say Bob and Josh are having an IM conversation. If Lync noticed that I was on both of their contact lists, and they mentioned a keyword that shows up in my “interests”, Lync would ask them if they wanted to add me to the conversation.
I think the casual interaction limitation is more of a cultural problem than something inherent to working remotely (and something that may solve itself if I was away for a longer period). My thought is that in general, people on our team don’t send IM’s casually – e.g. “Hey – I was just talking to Dan about test automation, and wondered if you had thoughts on how to do data driven testing”, or “Do you have any quick thoughts on blah?”. The questions I normally hear in the hallway, or from someone sticking their head in my office haven’t occurred over IM (or telephone for that matter).
Another example is the value (in our culture) of the in-person follow up. For example, I sent an email to a few peers on the team last week – I was expecting it to turn into a discussion, but only received two short replies (I replied to both, and then the conversation ended). If I were in Redmond, I probably would have had an additional casual conversation with a few of the recipients and attempted to clear up any ambiguity or answer any questions that was blocking an engaged conversation on the topic. This is difficult to do remotely (although it’s certainly possible to do all of this over IM, it takes some getting used to).
Now – since I wrote that email, I’ve changed teams, and the world has warmed up more to social media. Lots of Microsoftees use Yammer, and IM usage is on the rise. I (and others) still don’t think we (as a company, and as an industry) are doing enough to support and encourage remote work, and I’m discouraged a bit that Yahoo has seemed to take us a step or two backwards.