So working from home is no longer an option at Yahoo, what an uproar. The comments on twitter in the last few days following a leaked memo banning working from home at Yahoo were bitter.

But it turns out that Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, has made her decision based on data. The company’s VPN logs showed that people were simply not logging in for the time they were paid for. It is possible to be working offline, time which won’t show up in VPN logs, but it’s also possible to log in to the VPN and not work, so the login time is probably a fair approximation of time spent working.

There are modern theories about how work should be measured on output rather than time spent, which is a great theory, but tougher to measure fairly across a big organisation. I suspect it’s the lack of output which triggered Mayer to look into the log files in the first place

Flexible work schemes promise a lot of benefits;

  • it’s a cost saver for big companies, enabling them to reduce costs on desks, equipment and office space, particularly if combined with “Bring Your Own Device” programmes
  • for many employees the flexibility to work from home is a benefit, particularly those with long commutes or parents who adopt a “split shift” approach, working mornings when children are at school and at night when children are in bed
  • employee engagement goes up benefitting both employees and the company.
  • In the Netherlands the government sees flexible work schemes as a way to reduce road congestion.

And the downsides?

  • it’s harder to manage an employee you don’t see, you simply don’t get the same “face time”
  • it does not match certain types of office work; crisis communication, agile project management techniques rely on everyone being in the room together for example.
  • the potential freeloading problem, that seems to have been happening at Yahoo.

I like having the opportunity to work from home some of the time, I don’t use it very often, but it’s useful if I have a detailed report to write to have more “thinking time”, on a more pragmatic note it means I don’t need to take the day off to wait for the plumber or electrician.

But I wouldn’t do it full time – I like the social component of work, a lot of the most useful conversations with colleagues are short coffee meetings and it’s pretty hard to virtualise that.

I do manage people who regularly or occasionally work from home, and I’ve learnt that for it to work you need to have mutual trust between the manager and the team member. For flexible work programmes to be successful employees and managers need the right tools; laptops, phones, work tools, online collaboration tools.

But we also need new work skills, particularly for managers.

  • Clear setting of expectations for short and long term results
  • Open discussions about progress
  • Early addressing of performance issues
  • Attention to team performance, and building team collaboration tools
  • Create an environment people want to work in
  • Use of online tools to replace some of the face time you accidentally get in the office

Wait – these are all standard management skills apart from the last one. Perhaps we, as managers, just need to do do our jobs professionally. It shouldn’t take the CEO looking into VPN log files to address productivity problems.

image home office

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