Marissa Mayer is right to ban remote work

I’m amazed by the number of posts blasting Marissa Mayer for requiring employees to be in the office rather than working from home.

I’m obviously a fierce proponent for remote work arrangements of all kinds. I know that over the long term, companies with the strongest leadership win because they are able to attract, engage, and retain the best people. Strong leaders lead regardless of the environment they are placed within, and most people can learn to successfully lead their teams through all kinds of work arrangements.

However when faced with a fatally poor performing culture, change must happen quickly. Unless the investment has already been made to build strong leaders, when your company is dying then you must take dramatic steps to increase the speed of organizational learning. There are obvious advantages to physical proximity when you are driving significant and fundamental change, especially if you do not have strong enough supporting leadership in place to spread new ideas and build new habits.

I applaud Ms Mayer’s courage in taking the steps she feels necessary to save the company, regardless of  how unpopular they may be. However, the remote work ban at it’s best solves only a symptom. I hope that once a better culture is established and results are on the mend that she takes a longer term view, and begins to build a leadership team worthy of managing remote teams. Only when she and her leadership team are strong enough to lead despite the circumstances can the company be truly successful.

Before you decide to work at home…

Think you want to work at home? Think you are ready to manage remote workers? Consider these articles first.

Image courtesy of Flickr {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester}

  • Inc. says employees want something difference in their office space. Something more flexible that can change as the work teams and projects change. This office’s design allows maximum flexibility. No more expensive wall tear-downs and painful packing up and moving whenever someone new comes in or a project is completed.
  • NPR’s recent report on curated coworking shows freelancers are flocking to shared workspaces. They estimate 30% of the workforce is working on their own. The trend is so prevalent that coworking spaces are becoming more selective. You might be screened out of a coworking space because you don’t work well with the others in the space, or you don’t add enough to the community they’re creating.
  • Then there’s this article about Twitter moving into a Detroit coworking space as a cost-effective growth strategy. Companies are anxious to grow but nervous. Not having dedicated office spaces are the ultimate in company flexibility.
  • According to Gallup’s research, you need to socialize for six hours a day. Coworking spaces provide a flexible opportunity to replace the corporate office with an equally important socialization method.

What this means for employees or candidates

Before you take the plunge, consider what being truly alone will be like over the long haul. Find some coworking spaces close to you and check them out. Talk to some of the folks there and see what their experiences were. Think through where else you’ll get that social connection. Are you active in your church, in your child’s PTA, in your Homeowner’s Association? Your interviewers won’t hire you if they don’t think you can handle it, but they can’t come right out and ask for fear of HR reprisals about getting too personal. If you want the job, you have to address it without being asked. Be careful not to get too personal here but let them know how you will manage the social side of working alone.

What this means for managers

If you are remotely managing someone who works from home, remember that having a friend at work is critical to employee engagement and employee engagement is the primary value that you bring to the company. (Gallup’s research here.) If your employees ask for a few days in a coworking space, don’t immediately cheap out and say no. Access to a coworking spaces can increase their engagement and potentially provide them with great back-up equipment if something goes wrong at home. Plus, it provides you with a unique network of other highly motivated, self-disciplined people. If you need a graphic designer for a quick one-time job, they may be sitting right next to your remote employee.

Related articles

(Curious side note. Why would WordPress’s spellcheck keep changing my “coworking” text to “cowering”!? Freudian. While that may be how many managers react when they hear the words “you’ll be managing this person remotely”, it does actually happen. Get with the times WordPress!)


Five Simple Ideas for Telework Week

The government’s Telework Week starts March 5. That’s right. The federal government is pushing telework. Are you really going to let the federal government be more cutting-edge than you are? Of course not. Join the effort!

Already doing the remote thing? Make next week about improving the remote experience. Survey your people, both in the office and at home. What’s working well about your telework processes? What problems do they encounter regularly? What do they wish was different that would help them be more effective working from home? Prioritize the feedback and commit to improving 2-3 things. Identify some project teams, set some deadlines. Don’t forget to plan for the post-survey to make sure you’ve achieved solutions.

Just starting out? Next week is a great time to start experimenting. Pick a day and send everyone home. Regardless of where you are in the telework spectrum, one day with everyone working somewhere other than the office will teach you more than any amount of reading and planning. Choose one or two of these simple ideas for your one-day event.

  1. Start the conversation. Spend a few minutes and build a list of your biggest concerns about teleworking. Share it with your team and help them build mini-experiments to test your concerns. Worried about how to get in touch with them when you need them? Let them know you’ll be doing some random calls to evaluate how tough it really is. Worried they won’t really work? Have them identify what they’ll accomplish and then talk to them the next day to see how it went. Just having the conversation will raise your team’s trust to a new level.
  2. Schedule a team check-in meeting. The biggest hurdle to telework is sometimes the manager’s fear of technology. Force yourself to push through it. Even a 10-minute roll call will force you to learn how to set-up a conference call, how to manage multiple people on the phone, how to listen without seeing someone’s face.
  3. Pick a project. One of the benefits of working remotely is an increased level of focus. Identify that one project that you never seem to make any progress on, the one that always gets pushed off for other priorities. Make that your team’s priority for the day. The day after, have a meeting to collate and collaborate on what was accomplished. Having a single focus for the day will not only move that strategic project along, but it might just prove to you that people can actually be more productive working from home.
  4. Find solutions. Make sure the team knows to keep a list of what went well and what went poorly. Compile the lists when you return to the office. Prioritize based on the cumulative impact to productivity. Give the list back to the team and identify what options you have to overcome the most problematic items. This kind of work flexibility is very attractive to most employees. It’s very likely they’ll work with you to find solutions you can both live with.
  5. Reward your best team. Not ready to send everyone home? What about your best team? Not only are they most likely to effectively work around any issues and maintain high levels of productivity, but the message that the team with the best results gets to try teleworking is a powerful motivator.

My favorite things from 2011

Here’s a quick look back at a few of my favorite things  from 2011, the top things that made my life easier. What made your life easier this year?

TeamworkPM

I’m a big believer in results-based management but if you don’t watch progress to the result, you can miss critical opportunities to clarify an expectation or remove an obstacle for your people. This year, TeamworkPM gave us online project management that was flexible enough to build projects the way we worked, and comprehensive enough to keep track of comments, timelines, and obstacles. More than once, it showed me something was off-track early enough to pick up the phone and fix a problem that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. They also have a great mobile app that let me easily watch what was happening on the road.

My MacBook Air

You travel a lot as a remote manager (at least you should). It’s often easier and more productive for you to travel to them than it is for them to travel to you. A few months ago, I attended a meeting in a distant city. While I was there, I met with 10 of my remote workers who lived in the area. We enjoyed a quick lunch and a long talk. Not only was it great to see them, but seeing them out of the office and on their own turf made things seem a bit more fair and the conversation was a bit more open as a result. My 11″ MacBook Air is so easy to throw in my purse, it fits on any airline tray, holds a charge well and connects to most networks seamlessly. It’s made my travel life much easier. The switch from 20 years of PCs was so easy I kick myself regularly for not switching sooner.

My Sony EReader

I read a lot when I’m on the road, both for pleasure and for business. My EReader is the first thing I pack. The charge lasts for weeks, it reads like a real book, and it weighs less than my smartphone. I hate the Sony software but the 10 minutes a month of messing with the software to load books is worth the better aesthetic value to me. I actually like that it’s a truly dedicated reading device that doesn’t connect to the Internet. No temptation to surf that way. A side shout-out for Goodreads.com. I can easily list and rate everything I’ve read and the site gives me recommendations, author interviews, and dedicated discussions. I’ve found several great authors I never would have tried using their recommendations and groups.

Scrivener

I wrote a book for the 3daynovel contest and won NanoWrimo this year, feats I partially credit to Scrivener. Nick Spence over at MacWorld called it a digital shoebox which is a great description. For $45 or less, it allows you to keep your research and writing all together, gives you tools to organize it all in infinite ways, and then helps you format and compile a final version in whatever way you want. I’m currently  using it as a job search tool too. I have folders for cover letters and customized resumes, as well as job descriptions and company research, all in a searchable shoebox.

Mailchimp

A nonprofit professional group that I work with has over 800 people on their email list. They’d outgrown Outlook and didn’t know what else to do. Mailchimp is a great solution, a reasonably priced email marketing tool with a limited functionality free version. It allows us to send and track emails and open rates, allows our membership to choose whether or not to receive emails, integrates with Facebook, basically gives us professional level marketing power. It’s been relatively easy to set up and has really helped us clean up our mailing list and increase participation.

Are you allowing or encouraging?

We’ve done a lot of interviewing for some key positions in the last few weeks. Many candidates interview with us out of pure curiosity about “that remote thing”. We’ve been successful in an industry where remote working is rare and generally frowned upon. So we spend a lot of time in the interviews making sure (1) that this person can work remotely, and (2) that they really understand what that means and still want to.

One particular position managed several people, all of whom were in the main office. This person planned to work remotely and was very concerned about how that was going to work. He knew he could be a great individual contributor without being in the office but the idea of managing people without seeing them everyday really worried him.

Rather than try to explain it myself, I encouraged him to speak with one of my other managers. She managed from her home several people that worked in the office. I spoke with her first, explaining that she would probably hear herself say something during their conversation that she wasn’t expecting, something that would help explain why we’re more successful with this than other companies. She called immediately after hanging up with him. The ah-ha moment was utter simplicity and pure genius.

We don’t just allow this, we encourage it!

Aside from giving me great personal satisfaction that we had achieved such a thing, I realized again that leading remotely is really no different than any other leadership. I took great pride in knowing that we had an environment where people felt encouraged to be their best in their own way.

So many companies allow flexible work arrangements now. All too often that means they allow you to come in an hour later than the boss does. They allow you to work at home occasionally, usually when you are so ill that they’d pay you extra to stay away and not contaminate everyone else. Not enough companies encourage their employees to find the best way to work.

Are you “allowing” or encouraging people to do their best work?

  • When they work at home, do they (and you) feel like you are doing them a favor?
  • How many processes have you redesigned to allow employees to succeed and be recognized for that success regardless of where they are located? Or are you just bending the standards and normal processes in an attempt to accommodate their needs?
  • Do you purposely reach out to find the very best person for a particular assignment regardless of where they are? Or do the people you see every day get the best assignments?
  • Do the people on the phone in your meetings talk more than the people in the room? Or are they relegated to the obligatory “do you have anything to add” comments allowed after the decision is already made?

Your job as a manager is to encourage and enable your people’s success. Don’t assume you can just allow them to show up. Encourage them to be successful.

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