Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Home Work

I wanted to write a bit about working from home. The new head of Yahoo decreed that all people who work from home have to stop and get into the office instead. She threw out some mumbo jumbo about how effective and creative "water cooler" talk is, and how much gets done with "impromptu meetings".

In my opinion, only an upper management type would ever say that. For any sort of work that requires concentration, working from home (usually) gives you a chance to focus, and stay focused.

I am not saying that everyone can do it. Much like any other skill, working from home is a skill that some people can do well, and some people cannot do at all. You need to be able to focus on the task at hand, and get things done without needing someone to look over your shoulder all the time.

You also need managers that can manage like that. There were the inevitable horror stories that came out about people who just disappeared off the grid and "worked" from home and got nothing done. Like that is somehow endemic of working from home and not more a case of really awful management. Given all the tools available in today's world, it seems hard to believe you can have as much interaction as you want, even from home.

It seems particularly bad that this comes from a web / cloud company, who can't even figure out how to manage remote workers. To me, that is more a sign that the company doesn't understand its own market, and not that there is something inherently wrong with working from home.

Not that it is always great to work from home. Even now, after working from home for 20 years or more, people still don't understand how that works. For my job, anyway, working from home does not equal working whatever hours I want. At least my current job. My first job where I worked from home was different, in that it was more task based. Here's the project, get'er done.

This programming job is more of an 8-5 one. My boss likes us to be available and working "normal" business hours. Not that you can't wander off, but that is true even working from an office. As I work on a video conferencing system, we truly "eat our own dog food". We are always checking in with each other, getting status updates, having meetings.

In fact, I worked the last holiday Monday and was surprised at just how "quiet" it was! I was the only one working and it was nice to know I couldn't even get interrupted by a video meeting. So I guess I am well trained.

But some folks still don't get it. My family is still too freely thinks that because I am home, I am available to do things, like make snacks, clean the kitchen, run errands. I still wish they would get it in their minds to pretend that I am, in fact, away at an office and that I just can't drop things to work home errands. I am pretty good at avoiding those kinds of temptations.

The hardest time of year to work from home, in my opinion, is during an brilliant early spring day, where the temperatures get into the 60s for the first time and you just want to get away from the keyboard. The temptation then is at its maximum to just blow things off.

Other times that are real hard are during snowstorms and when you are sick. In both cases, I wouldn't go into the office and I would have a "day off". But working from home, that isn't going to happen. Not a big problem during a snowstorm, but like today, where I am feeling quite under the weather. How under the weather would you have to feel to not be able to work at the keyboard, at least for a little while? So I drag myself out of bed to work for a bit, and then drag myself back into it. Better if I could just "call in sick"!


  1. Unfortunately, not everyone is as honest or reliable as folks like you or me, that you could entrust to work from home and actually stay focused. I've had opportunities in the past to do tasks from home, and they've had measurable and trackable goals, so it would be easy for a manager to ensure I'm staying on task (or heavens forbid, show that I'm actually more efficient at home!).

    My current work falls about 20/80 into this boat and requires a lot more coworker interaction, so working from home would be a non-starter for me, but I wish I could somehow wrangle at least a one-day-a-week deal, not only to actually get 'er done on those things that just drag on at the office, but save on gas/transportation, time lost in commutes, etc.

    1. Some can and some can't. To say that working from home is the problem is a serious mistake. Sounds to me more like management is the problem.

  2. I was surprised that such a one-size-fits-all choice was made at Yahoo. I do think there's something good about collaboration, but there's no reason that can't take place in a chat window rather than at a whiteboard. (Pharma/Biotech mgrs are obsessed with whiteboards.)

    It seems that if Yahoo is having problems getting productivity out of their at-home employees, then they need to address the work of those employees, not the mechanism of working.

    Because I have gone back to doing labwork many days, staying home isn't an option, but when I'm grant/proposal writing I find the solitude of being home helpful.

    1. Plenty of online whiteboards too :) Sure, there are some days when I wish there was an office I could go into, but that's mostly a function of how loud the girls are!

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