Working at home

Marissa, we need to talk about this telecommuting thing.

I’ve been trying to ignore all the mindless coverage of Yahoo ordering all employees into the office so they can figure out how to save the company. But when Best Buy joined Yahoo in ending “telecommuting” something snapped.

All the “Is telecommuting dead?” headlines are a classic example of the media sucking the meaning out of an event, replacing it with an easy-to-understand “Who’s up, Who’s Down” story line.

Telecommuting isn’t dead. It won’t die until someone uninvents the Internet, the microprocessor and the telephone. It saves too much money in office space. It lets companies outsource too much work to cost-effective outside contributors. It’s too much of a perk for smart, hard-working employees who need to pick up their kids at 5:15 and can be trusted to make up the time later.

Telecommuting isn’t dead so much as it’s over. Whether employees should “work from home” is a 20-year-old argument that’s long ago been answered by the likes of outsourcing and, well, Mark Zuckerberg becoming a billionaire based on coding he did in his dorm. Today’s challenge is how to use today’s distributed technology and distributed talent to survive amid the sudden and tectonic market shifts that have Yahoo and Best Buy struggling for life.

Telecommuting: That’s So 90s

Telecommuting was coined in the late 80s or 90s as some pioneers began to, gee, let people work from home and dial into email over modems. Ironically, the technologies that made Yahoo and Best Buy big in the first place (search and home electronics) helped popularize telecommuting. The fact they can’t figure out how to get the most from remote workers might be part of their problem.

The very term telecommuting is kind of quaint. Nobody works only in the office these days. Between the recession and smart mobile devices, people need to and can work anywhere and anytime. Our employers and clients expect it and technology makes it possible.

Where a full-time employee works during the regular work day is only part of what makes successful companies tick. Your best developers might be in Indiana, India or Rumania. Your best customer service rep might work from their living room in New Brunswick. Your sales reps work out of their cars. These folks are remote because that’s the most cost-effective (and maybe the only way) you can get their services.

Culture, Not Cubicles

That doesn’t mean physical proximity isn’t important. We still need to do lunch, to have off-sites, to do group orientation meetings, to do boozy networking at trade-show receptions. And, yes, companies facing a life or death crisis need employees to run into each other in the hallway, lunchroom and (yes) bathroom for those random conversations that spark turnarounds. And, yes, they need the sense of shared purpose and connection only physical proximity can deliver.

But that doesn’t mean all hands have to be on the same physical deck at the same time all the time. Have a group you think can do great things? Give them a goal, some budget dollars for travel and let them (within reason) figure out for themselves when to meet and for what reason. Need key players in the office for more random availability and chats? Negotiate a schedule that respects their child-care (or parent-care) responsibilities.

Whatever you do, do it intelligently, and fairly. For example, Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer could afford to build an in-office nursery for her child. Imagine a key product manager or developer kept from picking up their child due to a sudden in-office late afternoon meeting. They imagine their child left confused and wondering why their parent isn’t there, and see the CEO’s child next door in their nursery.

Next step: That employee is looking for an exit, and the more capable they are, the sooner they’ll leave. And that is no way to run a turnaround. Telecommuting (or not) isn’t the question or the answer. Good management is.

Author: Bob Scheier
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I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email or call me at 508 725-7258.

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