The Internet has been ablaze this week with news of–and reactions to–Yahoo!’s new policy disallowing remote work. Not surprisingly, the reactions have been largely negative. As a “remote worker” myself, I have been following the discussion with great interest. La Piana Consulting has always been a “virtual” firm, either completely (in our early years) or in large part (we do how have a physical office, but only four individuals regularly work from there). As a result, I have been working from home for over 14 years.
Though “working from home” is somewhat of a misnomer. More accurately, I have been working from home, client sites, hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, airports, train stations, public libraries, karate studios, and all types of vehicles (moving and stationary). Some of that variety is due to the nature of our work. Face-to-face collaboration with nonprofits across the country means going to where they are, and the work doesn’t stop when you leave their office at the end of the meeting. (Thank you, Starbucks!) If I worked for another firm, however, my non-client-facing time might be spent in a more traditional office rather than down the hall from my kitchen.
There are certainly advantages to that kind of “corporate” office. It’s hard to dispute the value of pulling a group together around a white board, pooling ideas and debating the best approach to our clients’ (and our own) challenges. I look forward to our bi-monthly in-person staff meetings, where we spend two days doing just that. We work hard to make those days productive in all of the ways we miss when scattered about the country, sharing insights, hashing out plans, papering the walls with visual aids, and passing chocolate around the room. It’s productive, it’s fun, and it fosters our professional community. But the truth is, that kind of collaboration doesn’t have to end when we leave the staff meeting on Thursday afternoon. Technology can–and does–keep us connected, and allows us to keep working with each other regardless of where we call home.
It’s been a process, for sure; a lot has changed in 14 years. Today, however, we are avid users of an internal instant messaging application, quick to share screens via GoToMeeting or join.me, and more than willing to throw out questions, resources, requests, links, and even photos of the new puppy to our colleagues via Chatter, our own Salesforce-based social network. We share and collaborate on documents and workflows via Box, and try to talk with each other via Skype at least as often as we use “just” the telephone. Our smart phones allow us to send and receive email from anywhere, and our laptops and tablets allow us to dive into anything we can’t productively handle via our phone screens.
La Piana Consulting, like Yahoo, could limit itself to hiring employees who live within commuting distance of a physical office. If we did, however, we would lose a lot of talented–and productive–individuals. Life is complex, and messy, and everyone is juggling. Yes, most of us face distractions at home. Having worked in a “traditional” office before coming to La Piana, however, I can attest to the fact that there are just as many distractions in that setting. Working effectively in the face of distraction is a skill everyone must hone these days – as is working collaboratively with individuals and groups that aren’t close enough to pass the chocolate.
We haven’t got it all figured out, by any means. We are always looking for new tools to connect and collaborate virtually, and there are certainly times when I hang up after a call thinking if only we were in the same room for that conversation, and able to share a physical document or a coffee break, or to read each other’s body language. We do still depend on our bi-monthly staff meetings to have those experiences, and I’m glad that we do. Those times cement the collaborative relationships we build and nurture for the rest of the year via technology. We are fortunate that we have been able to make that balance work in our firm, and I am encouraged to see increasing numbers of organizations taking steps toward that kind of workplace. I feel for the employees of Yahoo!, for whom this policy shift must seem a huge step backward. Hopefully it is a temporary measure meant to reignite a waning collaborative spirit, and there will be opportunities at Yahoo! for remote staff in the future. If anyone should be able to crack the collaborative nut, after all, it’s a technology company.