Yahoo! caused an uproar on the Internet recently, when a memo leaked revealing that they were planning on ending all existing work-from-home arrangements by June of this year.
This change in policy has caused no end of outrage from not only Yahoo! employees, but also from those on the Internet and in the media who see telecommuting as the future of work.
The responses seem to range from those who see it as a huge step backward from an industry they expect to be pushing for more telecommuting to those who feel it is an attempt by Yahoo! to micromanage and control their employees.
Almost all seem to predict the end result for Yahoo! will be a mass exodus of the best employees and no one wanting to work there.
I’m not sure I agree with that sentiment.
While it’s entirely possible that the effect will be exactly as predicted and that perhaps Yahoo! is looking to micromanage its employees and weed out slackers, I don’t get that from reading the memo that was released. While all HR memos tend to be sugar coated, I tend to take people at their word unless they give me a reason to suspect otherwise. Let’s look at some of the actual text from the memo.
To me, this is the key paragraph,
To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
As someone who coaches Agile teams, the things they seem to be looking for are consistent with what makes Agile teams successful.
On Communication and Collaboration
The memo specifically calls out communication and collaboration. Let’s look at one of the values and a couple of the principles from the Agile Manifesto.
We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
When most of your workers are working from home, you require more processes and more tools to make collaboration happen successfully. It also becomes more of a challenge for individuals to interact with each other.
Business people and developers must work
together daily throughout the project.
Again, it is possible to pull this off remotely with good tooling (and I’m not convinced that there are good enough tools out there or that those who are doing telecommuting are using them), but this principle is difficult to adhere to even when people are working in the same office, so why add the extra layer of complexity?
The most efficient and effective method of
conveying information to and within a development
team is face-to-face conversation.
The further we get away from face-to-face conversations, the more information is lost. Tone, body language, and other non-verbal queues are lost and worse, when only part of the team is remote, it’s easy for those remote team members to be inadvertently excluded from on-site discussions which increases the knowledge gap between team members.
It is also much easier to build trusting relationships face-to-face.
If you want to build a culture of collaboration, high communication, and trust, then it’s easiest to do that in person and it sounds like that might be what Yahoo! is going for here. [click to tweet]
On Speed and Quality
The next section specifically calls out speed and quality. This has drawn a lot of criticism from those who have been working from home who claim that they are more productive and can get more done when they are not being distracted by their co-workers.
While many people are more productive individuals when they work from home (and some indicate some Yahoo! workers were not), I don’t believe Yahoo! is referring to individual speed and quality, but overall speed and quality.
In Lean software development, we often refer to ‘optimizing the whole’. That is, the efficiency of a system cannot be improved simply by optimizing the efficiency of it’s individual components. In some cases doing so can actually be damaging to the overall system. [click to tweet]
What often kills productivity in organizations is not how fast individuals produce stuff or how much stuff they produce, but how long they are delayed. The time an item spends waiting to be worked on usually ends up being greater than the time it is actually worked on. [click to tweet]
If you need assistance on an item and can turn to me and get it immediately, we as a team are more productive, even if the interruption makes me less productive as an individual. So if instead of getting the answer immediately from me, you have to write and send an email, or open a ticket in a ticketing system, wait for it to be prioritized, etc. We as an organization become much slower. While it can be possible to get good response times when telecommuting, it’s much harder and can never be as fast as having the person right beside you.
In regards to quality, if a decision is made in a side conversation at the office, that information may take longer to reach a remote employee, if it makes it there at all. This can result in costly rework. So while a remote worker may be more productive and producing more stuff, this gap may mean that they are producing more of the wrong stuff.
Many of the issues I’ve raised can be worked around in a telecommuting environment, but it’s hard and you will still likely have more issues than an equivalent fully co-located team, so in the end each organization will have to decide if it’s worth it for the type of culture they’re trying to create.
While I’m not convinced that this was the best approach Yahoo! could have taken to the situation, I can certainly see why Yahoo! might feel this is the right move for them. They could have taken a more gradual approach, but perhaps they felt that delaying any longer would have led to more catastrophic results.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Today’s image by craigles75.