Recently, there has been a brouhaha in the tech community over Marissa Mayer’s views on work from home. As an individual tech worker, it is very appealing to side with work from home, and going by the community’s reactions, I would say that I am not in the least surprised. But, when you look at it from a company’s perspective, things change; it is no longer as black and white as the tech community makes it look. There are many nuances to work from home, which predictably makes it difficult for large organizations to adopt it effectively.
As someone who has worked from home for an extended period and also now being responsible for FreeCharge, I can objectively look at this from both sides. Let me first talk about my personal experience while working from home. I used to love it; the most significant factor that used to work for me was the time saved on the commute; the gained one hour in a day used to do wonders for me. Whenever I used to tell my friends that I work from home, I used to get the usual question—how do you manage to do it? I am not someone who needs external motivation to work; I would be writing code even if no one paid me for it; pay is the icing on the cake. I love building stuff, accruing knowledge, and bringing things to life, and my profession as a software engineer lets me do all these. Without digressing, I am trying to convey that, to work from home, you need to be highly self-motivated. If you are in your job only for the paycheck, then work from home will result in anarchy at your company. The usual reaction in big organizations when someone sends the WFH(work from home) mail is a snigger.
Even though everyone in your organization might be supremely dedicated, two more prerequisites are essential to making work from home successful in your organization. The first question to ask—are all my employees roughly on the same productivity and experience plane? Junior developers need a lot of mentoring and collaboration to create quality software irrespective of their motivation. It is a herculean task to bring this sort of collaboration and guidance when the guru and the acolyte are not physically present in the same location.
The second question is, is the entire team remote, or is it only a small portion of the team? If you are in a situation where only a sparse population of the team works from home, it will be challenging to pull this off. What usually happens in such a case is fences are created—on one side, you have the remote workers, and on the other, you have the office goers. Whey you have this asymmetry, information flow is one of the biggest concerns, as people who work in the office find it easy to proliferate information through word of mouth, which does not reach the employees who work from home. In such a situation, you have to engineer a cultural shift in the way people communicate and document in your organization. It is difficult to engender this as those who are physically present in the office do not see a point in many of the processes you will have to accommodate to benefit the remote workers. As you know, when people do not believe in something, it is next to impossible to get them to do it.
The above are difficult to pull off in an organization of the size of Yahoo. No wonder, while it works for 37Signals, it does not work for Yahoo. Mayer took the most sensible way out. When do you make special provisions in your organization to let people work from home? It would be only on extremely critical projects where a person/team works in a silo, detached from the rest of the organization. You are one hundred percent sure that this team/individual would not abuse the freedom that comes with work from home.