Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Working at Home

Yahoo's recent announcement about banning working at home has inspired many comments, many of which take a single view of the this multi-faceted problem.

I bring three sets of experience over the past twenty years to the question.

First, as a CEO of a software company, I increased the productivity of our development team by 20X over a three year period. There were, as one might expect multiple reasons for the performance improvement. We improved the quality of the development team by hiring better people. We changed tools and development methodologies which allowed up to build more robust code and eliminate about half of the work preveiously required. We moved to a solid object oriented development approach increasing configurability and reuse.

We also recognized that concentration matters. Every developer had an office and their productivity as a result increased. At their request, we let them work at home several days a week, which permitted them to avoid long commutes on those days. We believed that an interruption to a developer when they were deep in a problem might cause them to loose 40 minutes of time as they re-engaged with their problem and train of thought.

All in all, it was a successful approach in a small firm where output or lack of output was easy to see.

Second, as an associate of a large international consulting firm, I like many of my colleagues did significant amounts of work at home or at client sites. I would have to say, that for me, someone who had not grown up in the firm, it was difficult to make connections with such a mobile workforce. All in all, it was a difficult, and I would say an unproductive environment.

Third, as someone who frequently works at home for projects with clients today, I find a consistent client problem is distraction. In contrast, when I work at home developing e.g. a thought leadership piece or a report on a consulting project, I typically find myself developing material so quickly, I have to force myself to slow down and not send the material to the client until I have slept on it. Often I develop material in three hours that my clients would take three weeks or more to develop because of their distracted state.

So, my conclusion about working at home is three fold:

1. Dedicated teams with specific goals benefit significantly from the ability to isolate themselves. Cubicles don't really make isolation easy.

2. Group activities, social cohesion and innovations driven by formal and informal interactions are almost impossible to create with email, conference calls and video conferencing.

3. Using "at home" resources or people who can isolate themselves can be a powerful way of obtaining deliverables quickly.

Having done turnarounds,I have sympathy with Yahoo's new CEO, Marissa Mayer. She needs not only to make active change in the company, she also needs to use symbolic actions to signal the change.

In my limited experience with Yahoo, I found the organization unfocused and difficult to deal with. Yahoo has a track record of delivering interesting technology and then letting it flail in the wind. As a company, it appears to have been weakly managed and led in the past. It seemed to have suffered from a lack of strategic vision and focus, but also from a lack of day to day management. Introducing such elements into a company is not a small task and a tactical decision to ban working at home may well be needed to refocus the company.