Sunday, March 3, 2013

Telework, Yahoo and throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Well the wolves are howling at Yahoo after CEO Marissa Mayer announced the end of telework.

As I reported in my post, Jobs, Doctor's Notes and Modern Reality, my employer is a supporter of telework and as a result I have had a number of years of direct experience both good and bad with telework.  There are some obvious benefits to the employee; foremost a substantial reduction or elimination in time and costs for commuting.  Likewise, there are often benefits to the employer such as reducing or eliminating the size of the corporate "office".  Additionally, if the position is 100% telework, the employer opens the door to a much wider panel of talent than perhaps could be acquired by requiring a fixed geographical presence.

The root of any telework program is a two prong assessment:

  1. The Employee:  In evaluating the employee's suitability for telework, past performance should be evaluated for indicators of integrity, dependability and self motivating.  Telework is unlikely to improve the performance of a marginal employee.
  2. The Position:   A position which requires analysis of spreadsheets by a predetermined fixed date is much different than a position that requires customer interaction at unpredictable times throughout the day as determined by the customer.  Some positions require individuals to be on site to perform the task.

The Manager:  While I did not include managers as a specific prong for assessment, managers must be skilled using electronic tools to monitor and measure the performance of their subordinates.  As with employees, telework is not likely to improve situations where you have a poor performing manager.

Some of the challenges (and opportunities) of telework:

Security and Tech Support - Secure connections to the work place are often achieved via a Virtual Private Network (VPN).  This adds a layer of complexity to configuring appropriate access to corporate resources and I have expressed some of my frustrations in regards to this issue in an earlier post.  Security considerations also include establishing a plan so that important updates are applied to remote machines (computers) including updates to both operating systems, necessary applications and antivirus type software.  It can be extremely frustrating troubleshooting connection issues with a remote employee - is it their connection?  is it a firewall issue?  maybe an issue with VPN? or did the employee install something recently which is now causing an issue.  Keep in mind that this support is often one on one which can strain support resources.  In contrast, connection issues are likely to be non-issues if the employee is working from an office workstation that is directly connected to the corporate network.  Policies also must consider whether employees will be permitted to connect personal devices to the corporate network.  Permitting a mixture of personal devices increases the vulnerability of the corporation to infection with malware.

Distractions - Home distractions may range from the TV to the family dog; however, it has been my experience that work is far from distraction free as well.  I have had construction workers show up unexpectedly in the work place - always considerable fun to be presenting on a conference call to be suddenly drowned out by a power tool.  The workplace also festers with distractions from co-workers and, no, these distractions are not necessarily productive - they  may range from "who stole my yogurt" to the latest buzz about the next round of "realignment".  A few years back, I would have added personal internet surfing to the at home distractions; however, with the advent of smart phones and "hot spots", I would say that it is entirely possible that this distraction may occur either at home or in the office.  My experience has been that this area of concern is a wash - yes, the distractions are different among the two environments, but I have not found that one is worse than the other.

Child care, Elder care, Other care - Arguably this could be placed under distractions, but I believe this issue merits special consideration. I am very skeptical of the parent who pleads, "...but, they sleep most of the time...".  Maybe they do and maybe they don't, but unless you want to risk a lawsuit, your policy better be consistent.  What happens when that sleeping baby becomes a colicky baby?  As one who has 3 kids and who has also spent some years working with a geriatric population, I would firmly state that providing care is work.  Yes, I have heard of multitasking, but I also believe in focus and quality.  At the risk of generating a chorus of boos and hisses, I don't believe this should be routinely permitted during telework.

Creativity and Collaboration - There is much merit to this idea.  I know there have been times when I have gotten ideas largely from exposure to other staff.  This would not have happened if I did not go into the office.  I realize that there are many on-line tools (Microsoft, Adobe and others have tools for virtual conferences) so that formalized collaboration can occur.  However, there has been more than one occasion where I have benefited from "accidental" collaboration that occurred informally by interacting with staff in an office environment.

Supervision and Accountability - For self governing employees, this is a non-issue.  For others, telework requires attention to empirical measurement.  For example, is the employee responding timely to communications by email?  by phone?  What is the employee's response time?  Is work submitted as would be expected if the employee were in the office?  Is that quarterly report submitted on time?  Is it accurate?  It shouldn't be too much of a surprise that the performance standards for telework should be the same as for traditional on-site office work.

Support a Healthy Workplace - This is one of those hard to measure areas.  In Jobs, Doctor's Notes and Modern Reality, I reflected about a policy regarding requiring a doctor's note for 3 consecutive days absences.  As reflected in this post is when you force sick folks into shared space, you get more sick folks.  I definitely believe my incidence of getting sick has decreased noticeably due to teleworking. Additionally, there have been many instances where I may not have felt 100% and definitely would have taken a sick day, but have not because of the availability of telework.

Good Will and Give to Get - I created this category myself.  Simply stated, I generally find that people give as they have gotten.  If my employer behaves as a "bean counter," I begin to behave as a "bean counter".  For example, when I telework I often log onto my work substantially before my shift and I also am more apt to monitor "loose ends" after my shift.  When in the office, my mentality is closer to "arrive on time; leave on time".  This is not to say I am inflexible as an "office worker," but I definitely do extend a much greater flexibility when I telework.

So what do I make of it all?

Based on my experiences and observations, I believe telework can be a win-win for the employer and employee.  However, I believe the best telework programs are a hybrid of traditional office time and telework time.  I believe there is much value in teleworkers having a corporate "home base" which can be relied upon for both support issues as well as for professional growth, including creativity and collaboration.  Blending telework with a "home base" approach can help employers maintain professional space, but on a scale that may yield savings based on a square footage costing.

I believe that corporate executives must lead by example.  While I realize that some perks come with being the CEO, if "no telework" is the policy that is chosen for Yahoo, then Ms. Mayer should lead by example.  As reported at Lifeinc on Today, I believe it is disingenuous for Yahoo to side step the question when asked whether it’s new mom CEO Marissa Mayer sometimes works from home.  You can skirt the question publicly, but your employees will know...all that collaboration time...well sometimes that's also called gossip.  Be careful handling that bathwater...

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