Recently, Yahoo! announced a major policy change that will de-authorize working remotely. Apparent reason: the struggling tech giant thinks it’s missing out on the positive results of face time among their people, forfeiting the creativity and other benefits encouraged by in-person interaction.
A quick and widespread outcry has followed this move—not surprising in today’s constant-breaking-news-fanned-by-social-media environment. On top of that, in the case of Yahoo!, it seems that reactions have been intensified—or, at least, interest has been stronger—because of the fact that this is a technology company. As if we presume that the climate of innovation apparently driving the tech world leads such organizations to maintain more forward-thinking management practices overall.
Guess we presumed wrong.
This obsession with working in offices is simply an established mental model that needs to change. Of course, there are advantages to people getting together, but there are great advantages to flexible working arrangements as well. And, although these 2 things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, again and again, we struggle to think outside the box of “traditional” offices.
It’s a paradigm as strong as any other—and one that I’ve heard clients work to uphold for decades.
“She’s the right candidate in every other way, but the job is in Atlanta and she’s not.”
“Our new brand manager must be located in the home office.”
“We might lose this employee to a competitor if he can’t work from home, but we have to follow our company policy.”
Sound kind of familiar? If so, take a step back and think about what we’re doing here: we’re prioritizing geography over quality. As a leader who knows that you’re only as good as the people on your team, how can you possibly convince me that this makes good business sense?
For some reason, we tend to think of “traditional” offices as a given—as the norm some companies choose to deviate from. But in truth, this trend has only been around since the early 1900s. And it was designed in response to a challenge that no longer exists: As businesses grew from local to national to global enterprises, it became clear that colleagues needed to be in the same physical space in order to communicate. Hence, the rise of the office.
But today, geography doesn’t limit teams’ ability to communicate in real time. In fact, some of the most disastrous communication problems I deal with happen among people who work in the same office and see one another many times a day.
Advantages of the Home Office
Telecommuting has many advantages: greater productivity, higher discretionary income for employees, lower cost of space, lower relocation costs, reduced pollution, and so on. But the greatest of these is access to talent.
Many high-capability people see the home-office option as a game breaker. You can throw every benefit in the world their way, but if you take away that flexibility, you’ll lose them. Plain and simple.
While this is, in part, an indication of individual employees’ priorities, it’s also a telling reflection of what an office requirement says about an organization as a whole: namely, that it’s old fashioned, out of touch, maybe a bit stuffy. Is that really the message you want to send?
Disadvantages of the Home Office
Of course, telecommuting also brings its share of challenges. It can be more difficult to brainstorm, to tap into the “feel” of group dynamics in a session. And there’s no substitute for the shared experience of those “you had to be there” moments.
As a result, remote team members can miss out on the group’s support and find themselves feeling out of the loop. They can get lonely.
Where that Leaves Us
This all comes down to balance and empowerment instead of black-and-white policies.
Talk to your people about the above concerns, and ask them (not top management) to come up with interaction ideas that address the issues of remote working. Instead of developing your own top-down solution, start by listening. Then, if you can live with it, let your team experiment with their solution, diagnose the results, and adjust.
And if you manage work-from-home employees, focus on keeping them informed, in touch, and included.