Working From Home

I thought I would start my inaugural post by writing about my experience working from home considering the recent Yahoo press. I’ve worked in physical offices and from home for a mix of my career, but more time has been spent in 100% remote positions. At Site5, where I currently work, I’ve seen our company grow from a handful of employees to over 90 today, all while still remaining 100% remote. I believe remote working is better for both the employee and the employer, for many reasons:

  • No commute.
  • No dress code.
  • Employees can setup their work space however they want to be more creative and comfortable.
  • Employees can live in a city they prefer, to stay near family and friends or simply in an area with a lower cost of living.
  • For the travelers, it’s easier to travel around the world and take extended working vacations.
  • If the company is 100% remote, employers don’t need to rent expensive office space.
  • Hiring is global so employers get access to the best talent and employees have more choices for employment, even in a small town. This is very important when you’re hiring in competitive industries like tech.
  • Covering 24/7 shifts is easier due to time zone differences.

Most of the negative comments or experiences I’ve read about remote working not being productive appear to be due to people not giving it a solid try. This appears to be most prevalent at companies that are not 100% remote. A big challenge can be communication. The more you use remote work, the more you need to focus on tweaking how your company communicates internally. A few things you can try:

  • If constant contact is important, use a chat system (Jabber/IRC/HipChat/Gtalk). Email is not helpful when you need an answer right now. Phone calls seems excessive when it’s a quick question. Also, require employees to be logged in and available to chat and require that away messages be used — a simple “brb” if they’re stepping away from their desk or “lunch” if they’re at lunch. It’s the polite thing to do.
  • Setup group chat rooms on the internal chat server for teams or project groups. A “water cooler” channel is also recommended so there is a place for non-work chat.
  • Use a voice communication system like TeamSpeak or Skype. Voice quality is significantly better than a phone call, even when the person is half way across the world. TeamSpeak is better because it performs more like Jabber with voice instead of Skype which feels more like a replacement for a regular phone. I can easily ping someone on Jabber and ask them if we can have a quick voice chat on TeamSpeak in a private conference channel.
  • Use some kind of internal forum for discussion and maybe an internal blog for big company announcements. Ask probing questions and encourage discussion from everyone.
  • Use Google Docs to collaborate in real-time on conference calls to make sure everyone is on the same page. Encourage contributions from everyone.

Working from home is still work and it should be treated as such. Employees shouldn’t be disappearing randomly throughout the day or watching their children as that wouldn’t be acceptable in a physical office, either. I don’t deny that there are people who work from home who slack, but that is not innate to working from home — it’s innate to bad employees. But to think that employees who show up in an office will immediately be in “work mode” is naive.

Having worked for other companies in physical offices, I tried to think of some ways those experiences were better or different than working from home. This is what I came up with:

  • Some people miss the physical contact with co-workers. I can sympathize with this, but I still don’t think you need to see your co-workers in-person every day or even every month. However, a lot of people meet their friends or start relationships at the office, so you do need to be more proactive about socializing in other circles to meet people.
  • It can be hard to “separate” from work. This isn’t necessarily a problem unique to remote working, but when you work in the same place that you live, your home can sometimes feel like the office. Having a separate space you work is key, plus doing all of your work under a separate computer login so you can “log off” at the end of the day. Or working at a coffee shop or co-working space every now and then for a change of scenery.

On Yahoo

I don’t know all of the internal details surrounding the Yahoo policy change on remote workers, but it has started a discussion about remote working, which is good. Yahoo has the freedom to end their remote working program, but it strikes me as either a knee-jerk reaction or a quick cost-cutting attempt. Considering Marissa Mayer is a data-driven person, I was a bit surprised to see no specific data on why they were eliminating remote working entirely (especially when there is data indicating the opposite). If some Yahoo employees were abusing the work-from-home privileges, why not fire those employees instead of ending the program entirely? There is no reason you cannot have accountability in a remote working environment.

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