Tea Time With Jesse

Six of One, Half Dozen the Other

Telecommuting – What Do You Think?

Posted by middlerage on March 1, 2013

So telecommuting is ALL OVER the news, what with Marissa Mayer telling her minions to get back to the office. I’ve seen compelling reactions from both sides of the fence over this move. On the one hand, most companies in Silicon Valley are moving towards telecommuting, on the other hand observers are saying the amount of malingering at Yahoo was unique and makes those workers stand out from their Silicon Valley peers.

On the one hand, Mayer is a “race traitor” for being a mom yet invoking a family un-friendly policy. On the other hand, Yahoo is swirling in the toilet bowl of unproductivity and devaluation.

What do you think?

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It’s a tough one, and I don’t have an opinion, so much as a bunch of semi-related thoughts inspired by the debate. As a climate scientist I think telecommuting is a great way to combat carbon emissions. As a regular Joe, I find I really need the formality of a workspace to be productive. It’s just a personal thing.

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Being middle aged, I see older folks who just have to print documents and read the physical copies. And I see youngsters who do all their reading and creating and editing in the virtual world. And I empathize with both. Often I can do most work on the computer, but occasionally I need to sit down with a paper copy and a red pen.  There’s real value in poring over hard copy, just as there is real value in walking into an office. In a building other than your house.  But I also hesitate to pontificate a one-size fits all rule. I am sure there is somebody who can work a highly productive fourteen hour day in their bathrobe.

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Speaking of bathrobes, one Yahoo telecommuter opined that if they have to go back into the office do they also have to read email at home in the evening? Or shouldn’t that barrier be re-erected as well? Excellent point.

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One thing that scares me about telecommuting (cheapskate that I am), is how much responsibility for materiél will be shoveled onto the worker? I’ve always been indignant that soldiers have to pay for their uniform out of their first paycheck. With a $0.75 trillion pentagon budget we can’t buy the boots of a soldier who might die in them? I have friends who are mechanics – they buy all their own tools, and have to cart $1000s worth around to each new jobsite. It seems unfair – especially when, in my field, I’ve always been provided with the necessary tools.

In the early days, telecommuting was novel, and a way to attract talent: “We want you! So we’re gonna pay to outfit your home office and install some serious hardware. And we’ll pay for the broadband!” But if companies learn they can get credit for supporting the environment AND reduce office costs, will they start requiring telecommuting? Then it’s just a slippery slope to requiring us to outfit our workspace.

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Of course the family friendly activists are up in arms too. That seems like a tough argument to make (not that I don’t support them, but…). If you telecommute to save on daycare, then are you doing work? Or child care?

On the one hand, it’s your choice to have kids. On the other hand, why does a work day have to be 8 to 5? Couldn’t it be 8 to midnight, with hour-long, child-centered activities interleaved?

(So here’s where I get preachy) I suppose the perfect employee is a couple – no kids, who work from home, buy their own office equipment, and use government health insurance. They answer task requests all day. Then in 50 years, the population crashes, and CEOs can sell their wares to tumbleweeds.

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5 Responses to “Telecommuting – What Do You Think?”

  1. Jerry said

    At my company, everyone has a laptop provided, so working at home does not require provisioning one’s own office (at least not for the computer). Speaking personally, I can get more done on my task when I work at home.

    But…

    When I’m at home I don’t overhear one of my colleagues who is stumped on a problem I’ve solved. The guy who is modifying code I originally wrote loses an important resource. Sometimes there’s a question about how something shoud work and I get to put my designer hat on. There is unplanned, unmeasured, serendipity of information flow in a cubicle environment. I’ve been able to telecommute less and less as the number of projects we are maintaining increases and the number of people reporting to me fluctuates.

    It drives me crazy some days that I can’t get to my tasks until most people have gone home for the day, but all that other time spent is certainly not wasted (I tell myself). I am very happy that I have the option, however, of stepping out of that environment and hiding in the woodshed when my own deadlines loom. Some days there’s just no time for the luxury of serendipity.

    My company is more williing to spend on infrastructure to help people who live far away get to work than it is in encouraging telecommuting. It would be far cheaper to encourage telecommuting than to buy a fleet of luxury coaches (with wifi) to haul people in from far and wide, but that’s the choice my company made. The big gray coaches (some double-decker!) are a fixture on bay area freeways.

  2. Dahveed said

    I telecommuted for 5 years. It was an terrific experience because, even though I was very disciplined in actually working during working hours, it gave me an incredible opportunity to be close to my 1st child — what with not having to commute, being able to take small breaks, having lunch with my family, etc. I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to do it.

    But I tell you, there are definite drawbacks: If your company doesn’t have a culture and infrastructure to support it, it can be a monumental hassle. HP had grown so much by merger and acquisition that distributed teams were the norm, so people knew how to deal with it and IT was amazingly well-equipped to manage it. But if the norm is that everybody is in the office (like at my current company), you’re probably going to get left out of impromptu meetings, cubicle popping, etc — all things that save time and help you do a better job. You’re more likely to get overlooked for promotions and such. That’s just the way it is. And no matter how disciplined I was about it — and I really worked at it — I always knew I could be more productive if I was at the same office with my team. At least for my role, that was the case. Telecommuting works a lot better when you’re an “individual contributor” rather than a manager of people or things. If your job requires long periods of uninterrupted solitary effort or thought, then working from home is terrific. But if, like me, you herd cats for a living, doing it remotely is inherently less efficient.

    I found it essential to create a good working environment at the house. I had a nice desk and chair, in a (relatively) quiet part of the house and we had an agreement about the kids not being allowed to come into Daddy’s office while he was working. HP was slowly evolving into a company that made the employee foot the bill for telecommuting (they supplied a laptop, but you had to pay for your broadband, telephone, incidental office supplies, and other stuff you needed). It wasn’t fair and I didn’t like it, but I never complained because I didn’t want to give them a reason to make me come into an office. A few hundred dollars a year was a small price to pay to play a bigger role of my kids’ early years.

    Speaking of kids, HP had a policy that I 100% agree with: Telecommuting could not be used as a substitute for daycare! People who tried to pull that crap got the privilege taken away pretty quickly. You can’t watch over your daycare-aged kids and work at the same time. It just doesn’t work.

    As far as Mayer goes, I think the policy is probably a bit myopic. High tech is not the gravy train it was in the late ’90s, but overall, retaining talent in the high tech industry is a challenge because demand for competent workers outpaces supply. Given that telecommuting is pretty much the standard in the Silicon Valley, I would think they’re going to have to trade off some recruiting/retention for whatever extra productivity they get out of this move. That said, if the culture at Yahoo! was actually as slackerly as some have described, it might be a worthwhile trade-off. In any case, as a CEO she absolutely has the right (and under the right circumstances, the obligation) to do it. As far as family friend activists go, let’s get real: Yahoo! is in serious trouble. The board didn’t hire her to make the company a model for family friendly policy; they hired her to return it to market leader status. If she can pull that off and be a champion of family friendly policy, wonderful, but there was — and should be — a higher priority on the former. The other side of the coin is that employees can, and should, find the jobs that best match their desires and lifestyle.

  3. The problem with Mayer’s message is she had a nursery installed next to her office, so she could have her newborn next door while she issued this new proclamation. That isn’t going over well with the troops.

    And on the subject of telecommuting, I am the titular owner of a small consulting company that exists solely because of telecommuting. My two full-time employees telecommute. We outsource most programming to Indonesia, contract out graphic design to an artist in Los Gatos, and QA is headed by a contractor in San Francisco. The closest thing we have to a central office is a coffee shop with free wifi in Los Gatos.

    Way too much will be made of Yahoo!’s new directive. I’m sure there are countless other tiny companies doing what we’re doing. If small businesses truly are the foundation of our economy, telecommuting has changed the equation. And it really doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work when scaled up to megacorps like Yahoo!.

    • Dahveed said

      “The problem with Mayer’s message is she had a nursery installed next to her office, so she could have her newborn next door while she issued this new proclamation.”

      Wow. I didn’t hear about that part. That’s some serious hubris!

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