Don’t Yahoo! Your Telecommuters

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It has been a couple weeks since Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer canned Yahoo’s telecommuting program. Most have come in on the side of the telecommuters but there are plenty that don’t. The results Yahoo may garner from the process may take awhile to attain and there is no guarantee that the change will actually improve things.

Part of the problem is that Yahoo has major problems and this move is just a minor change that Mayer is taking. It will probably not have anywhere near the impact of other actions but it is one of the more notable ones from those viewing the company from the outside.

Telecommuting will only be successful if management supports it. That is obviously not the case with Yahoo but that does not mean that telecommuting is a bad idea or that it doesn’t work. There are more than enough studies, surveys and feedback that show that it works and actually improves employee productivity.

Telecommuting is not always an option. Jobs that require a physical presence obviously do not work but there are plenty that can allow telecommuting part of the time. In my case, it works all the time. I’ve been telecommuting for decades with great success but it required the support of management.

One of the earliest jobs that I was a telecommuter was with a company called Rising Star, the creator of Valdocs. Valdocs ran on a Z80-based Epson QX-10. It supported a background mail program that depended upon modems. Remember those things. They used to sing to each over telephone lines. The Internet was not even a gleam in someone’s eye but it worked. We used to get together for lunch or a meeting about once a week but all the development was done at home.

These days VPNs, texting and video conferencing are available to just about everyone. Massive amounts of data can be moved around, securely if necessary. The capabilities are mind boggling but any stumbling blocks tend to be management related rather than technological hurdles.

Transitioning to a telecommuting environment often exposes general management issues. If a manager does not know what they are managing or how to gauge the work of their employees then having them work remotely typically exacerbates the problem. Doing it right often means documenting and formalizing processes that can be good for the company in the long run.

One challenge is reminding people that communication is still required. Often people assume that others do not want or need to talk to people if you don’t see them.  Too often people say they need face-to-face communication but what they really mean is they do not know how to communicate without talking directly with someone else. In other cases they may simply not be good at communicating, period.

To successfully build a telecommuting environment requires preparation, training and good management. You can guarantee failure by simply sending someone off with an Internet connection and a laptop. Things get worse if there are a dozen people involved with a dozen different platforms and environments. Remember that the tools need to work together if the employees are going to work together using them.

I am always surprised by technology companies that are very selective on the types of technology they employ. They often ignore telecommuting putting them at a disadvantage compared to the competition. This ranges from not having access to talent that might not want to move to reducing the amount of useful work being done because time is being expended with travel.

Managing expectations is often what management fails to do. Telecommuting can provide management and workers with flexibility but it should not turn into a way to get something for nothing. All too often a telecommuter is assumed to be available 24-7 or 18-6 rather than 8-5.

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with companies that have been good when it comes to telecommuting. How about you?

Discuss this Blog Entry 10

on Mar 19, 2013

Another possible thing is building cost. As I was leaving HP Atlanta, the company was calling all telecommuters back in. At one point there was enough people to fill 3 floors of the 23 or 25. Some floors had one worker. Not a cost effective way to do business.

on Mar 19, 2013

Valdocs? I haven't thought about that in years!

It didn't get good reviews due to stability issues, as I recall.

on Mar 20, 2013

It varied as most systems do even now. Just take a look at Windows and its various incarnations. There were very stable versions of Valdocs and a couple that had issues. Overall it was very stable. In fact, it was actually better than most systems of the time. You could shut down and have what you were just working on available when the system came back on. Try that with the original 1-2-3 or Wordstar. It lost out more due to transition to the PC platform we all know now. Epson really didn't have a good hardware path and the software was not moved in that direction. In fact, there was work to move it to the Atari platform and that is another that never made it.

At the time it had many of the features we now take for granted from WYSIWIG to integrated applications. It even had background email when most systems were single tasking like CP/M.

The QX-10 had some interesting hardware under the hood with a banked memory system that pushed past the 64Kbyte limitation of the Z80.

On the software side there was a mix of assembler, C and Forth.

on Mar 20, 2013

Doesn't Mr. Wong's grammar checker work? I could not finish reading this article, because of the mistakes. This is one reason I don't want my controls engineers working from home. If they aren't nearby then I have to go out of my way to correct their mistakes. I find it more efficient to have the person working on a project within 20 feet of me. When I markup drawings or want to teach them something new I can have them come into my office and spread everything out. It may seem old fashion, but I feel it is necessary to have the face to face contact.

on Mar 22, 2013

Yes but I usually ignore them when I am ranting.

Part of the problem with telecommuting is the inability to spread things out but this tends to be more of an issue of the facilities given to people. If you have only a small laptop screen it is hard to show a lot even if you can share a screen. Likewise, video conferencing with a tiny image is a very poor substitute for sitting next to someone.

Giving people the right tools makes a difference. I normally use a system with two or three monitors. It makes a difference most of the time. Other times one is sufficient.

on Mar 20, 2013

Telecommuting restrictions imposed by CEO Mayer is just one of a series of blunders she has made. The changes she made to the home page of Yahoo have gone over like a lead balloon. Just how many of these major foul ups is the board going to allow her to take. The feedback has all been negative and not one word from anyone at Yahoo, including Mayer about any of the comments.

on Mar 21, 2013

"Often people assume that do do not want or need to talk if you don’t see them." "In other cases the may simply not be good at communicating, period." Apparently the author needs to work on communication skills!

on Mar 22, 2013

I definitely need to stop entering my blog directly on the website instead of writing offline. At least then I can use the grammar and spell checkers. Then again, it tends to get more comments.

on Mar 30, 2013

I agree that "Managing expectations is often what management fails to do." Abruptly changing a workplace environmental policy is risky. CEO Mayer may lose good people who came to Yahoo! because they could telecommute. Another employer could easily scoop them up.

My wife telecommutes, and is much more productive at home than at the office. She is good about focusing on work when she’s supposed to be working. She doesn’t mind if she ends up working extra or odd hours, since she likes the working conditions. At the office she can hardly get anything done because they have countless useless meetings and because there is always a line of people who want her to help them (when they could figure out their problems themselves). We also save significant gasoline and wear-and-tear on the car.

Managers are supposed to know how to pick and then oversee people who can telecommute productively. When either party fails to do that, or if management assumes that one or two bad apples have spoiled the whole barrel, then you have epic failure of management – but they’ll never admit to it. Yahoo! has enough inertia that it may weather this storm, although it will sustain damage. The question is, will a competitor realize and take advantage of this blunder? And as an aside, will another short-sighted executive copy this blunder?

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William Wong

Bill Wong covers Digital, Embedded, Systems and Software topics at Electronic Design. He writes a number of columns, including Lab Bench and alt.embedded, plus Bill's Workbench hands-on column....
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