Should working from home be listed as a company benefit?
Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer created an industry stir recently when she announced a ban on working from home. That’s the type of announcement that will send media and bloggers straight to their keyboards as they position what it means and what motivated the action. A spokesperson for Yahoo! gave this quote a few days later, “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home–this is about what’s right for Yahoo, right now.” That quote captures the key point. Mayer is operating and making decisions on what she believes is in the best interest of Yahoo! Individual policies are a means to an end for her. These policies are not her ultimate goal which is to make Yahoo! a healthy and growing company financially.
Working from home home is not often listed as a company benefit. In many companies, it’s an informal agreement between the manager and the employees. It’s a perk. It’s part of the work hour flexibility program. It eases work-life balance for employees with long commutes. It can often be used as a salary offset (what’s a day at home worth to you in salary?) I’m not sure about other functional areas of the business, but working from home at least once a week has become an expectation for today’s technology work force.
Employee retention is at the core of the conversation.
Beneath the surface of this conversation on working from home is employee retention. Mayer wants to encourage closer collaboration from teams by eliminating some of the challenges with remote communication. But if good employees leave does the policy back fire and end up hurting Yahoo! more than it helps? Employee retention is now a critical metric for technology leaders. Outside of their technology skills, employees have institutional knowledge composed of systems, business rules, customer knowledge, and inter-departmental relationships. When a good employee leaves their institutional knowledge leaves with them.
Can you build relationships at home?
Laurianne McLaughlin of InformationWeek.com captures another piece of the core implications in her commentary about the Yahoo! policy on working from home. She includes a quote from Martha Heller, a CIO and IT leader recruiter, “The No. 1 skill in IT leadership right now is the relationships they can build with people in the company. CIOs have an issue right now where they can’t find people to report to them with that skill. You can’t build that at home.”
Good relationships will keep teams together and bad relationships (or no relationship) will break them apart. Technology leaders need team members that work well together and they need team members that work well with employees outside the technology department. While communication from remote employees is technologically easy, it does not enable the full relationship benefits people receive from being together.
Working from home once a week does not make building relationships unachievable. But once a week is 20% of the work week. If team members work from home on different days of the week it creates a more complicated matrix of when they can interact. The amount of time when the full team is together decreases and the idea of building relationships through co-location is more complicated than it seems on the surface.
So what does a technology leader do about it?
Allowing employees to work from home is a means to an end. A primary end goals is employee retention. Working from home isn’t for everyone. Some employees may live close enough to the office that they would rather be in the office each day. Some employees may recognize that they are too easily distracted with home life to be productive. But for others, working from home may provide them with the flexibility they need in their personal lives so they can be a full contributor to the team success. So I believe a work from home policy must be handled individually but should be supported in general terms as a company policy.
Building relationships is a key component to employee retention. Technology leaders need to stretch themselves in this area and try new techniques. That may mean using video conferencing services (i.e. Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.) instead of text based instant messaging. That works for team meetings in addition to one-to-one conversations. It may mean creating “drive-bys” for remote employees as well. We get interrupted each day from co-workers that stop at our desks to chat. Why not do the same for remote employees to create the in-office feel? Maybe that becomes to disruptive, maybe it doesn’t. But the bigger point is building and maintaining relationships that help with employee retention and ultimately productivity. I suspect technology employees are open to trying new ways to make it better. Just make sure someone still brings the donuts on Friday morning.