Thursday, October 17, 2013

Um, Can I Work From Home? Please?

It really is amazing how organizations can take a relatively simple idea and supersize it to the point where it is unrecognizable from its original conception. Last week, in a bizarre reversal, we learned that HP has decided that their people should not work from home any more if at all possible. As usual, Arik Hesseldahl from AllThingsD summarizes it the best:

Computing and technology services giant Hewlett-Packard, which appears to be taking a page from Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, has quietly begun enacting a policy requiring employees to work from the office and not from home.

While it hasn’t yet reached the level of a company-wide directive with the same jarring effect as a new policy put in place by Yahoo earlier this year, HP employees are being told by bosses that if they can work at the office, they should work at the office.

I thought that I'd discuss this a little because the subject comes up frequently for me and, unsurprisingly, there is no correct answer - just a lot of nuance. So, why are these large organizations recalling their remote workers? What exactly is the "state of the art" when it comes to workplace design? How did we get here in the first place, where CEOs need to issue these kinds of decrees? Well, its quite interesting.

First, let me just make the incendiary pronouncement: Except in a small subset of job roles, working from home for extended periods is probably not a best practice. Sorry. If you read between the lines of the HP announcement, you get a pretty good reason for getting people to the office every day: immediacy of contact. This is not, as it turns out, the only reason to bring people together every day. There are all sorts of others, ranging from morale, to the rotation of the earth and the speed of light.

If you want to get into some very interesting academic research on the subject, the faculty at MIT's Sloan School have plenty of reading material for you. For example, Alex Pentland of the Media Lab has done a great deal of research that shows the value of people who work social circles within office environments. Long before him, Thomas Allen, a distinguished professor at the same institution, published a book that discussed a lot of the same kinds of issues. The overwhelming conclusion you arrive at from the reading is that the effectiveness of an organizations largely depends on how well, and how quickly, information gets disseminated and processed through the ranks. People working in intellectual or physical isolation create problems. Having whole teams of people that never see each other is unambiguously bad for productivity and creativity. There's a reason that "open" (i.e. cubicle-free) office environments are popping up everywhere: It forces people to talk to each other and collaborate.

The problem is that, for many years, it has been all the rage to geographically disperse organizations and try to make that work. Usually, the justification for this is money - the desire to cost reduce some aspect of the process by leveraging cheap labor in low wage locales. At some point it became a real estate cost reduction: Office space can be smaller if everyone worked from home, and so a company can pay less rent. Just like everything else related to pathological management behavior, if a little of something is good, a lot must be better.

Of course, these schemes have a cost, and that cost is usually management overhead. The managers have the unenviable task of getting all these people to work together. It usually means having to say the same stuff multiple times to different people in different time zones, waiting days for consensus to form, backtracking and starting over when misunderstandings inevitably arise, and a lot of wasted time. It also means that communication many times becomes mostly hierarchical. Information sharing becomes stunted unless the manager is an amazing person. Worse yet, it adversely affects corporate culture in ways too numerous to mention here. It's clear that this is what Meg Whitman is ruminating on at HP. It is also an interesting thought experiment for us to consider what this trend portends for the future of knowledge work.

As for the original question about working from home, I do allow it for a small subset of people. If you are one of them, it means that I have worked very close to you before, and I understand your work habits and your thought processes intimately. It means that I have decided I will allocate the time to interact with you daily, and maybe hourly.  It means that you have committed to being in the office one week a month at a minimum, and I will make sure that your travel is paid for. In fact, if this is you, you can consider it the supreme compliment from me: You are incredibly valuable to the organization, because I do not have the time to do this for more than a couple of people and still do my job well. If this is not you, I'll talk to you at the espresso machine...

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