Telecommuting, Hoteling, and Managing Product Development

There are two sides of this conversation about telecommuting: the employee side and the management side. I hope you stick around for both sides. You can yell at me at the end.

Employees: You Owe the Company a Full Day of Work

I’ve been thinking since Marissa Meyer’s announcement what I would say about the end of telecommuting at Yahoo!. Best Buy employees now have to have a conversation with their managers about how they will manage their telecommuting.

People who work remotely full-time have an obligation to their team-mates to be available, to make it easy for their team to find them. Once you have a telecommuter, you have a geographically distributed team, and anyone who’s been on one, knows the stresses that places on a team. It’s not impossible. It’s just harder on everyone.

I know the Bay Area has horrible traffic. I know the problems of being a parent and commuting to work. Mark and I managed those problems for more than 20 years, until our children graduated from high school. (Just because your children can drive does not mean you don’t worry about them. If they have mono in high school, you still worry about them. Yes, you do.)

And, I will tell you this: If you are camped out in the dining room or the living room on your computer and the kids are running around, or if you are driving the kids to their activities, you might be doing email, or you might be on the phone, but your work is not 100% on work. You are not focused. You cannot possibly be giving 100% of your brain to work. Some part of your brain is wondering what the kids are doing. Or, wondering why the kids got so quiet. Or, wondering why you can’t hear the dog anymore. This is not a full day of work.

If you work from home on a regular basis, and you regularly work from the dining room, I’ll say the truth: you are shortchanging the company. You are not delivering a full day of work.

Staying home when a child has a fever? Of course, you must. Staying home when a child has the mumps or measles or chickenpox? (Does anyone get these diseases now?) You must. You and your spouse can discuss/fight over who has to take time off. We did. You can, too. Good luck. That’s a marriage/career issue. I’m not getting into the middle of that one.

But the cost to the team of you not working with the team on a daily basis? That is so high. If you want to know, measure the value stream in your project.

Anyone can make telecommuting work. Especially if it’s just one or two days a week. But five days a week? No. That’s not reasonable for your teams. And, I wonder why you chose that. I bet some of you chose that because your company did not provide a reasonable environment for you.

Telecommute in an emergency? Of course. On a regular basis? Especially if you want agile teams? Craziness.

Once you have established teams, teams can create their own norms. But it takes many iterations and lots of trust to build those established norms.

Companies, You Owe Employes a Reasonable Work Environment

Once we get past the emergency days when parents must take time off from work, and have people back at work, what will we do with these people? We need reasonable work environments. Here’s what constitutes reasonable for me:

  • A team room for an agile team
  • Rooms for cross-functional teams to meet. (Even if you are not agile, you need rooms for cross-functional teams to meet. Yes, you do.)
  • An “office” for each person. It can be small if there is a team room.
  • Sufficient meeting space, so you do not have to go to buildings half a mile away for a meeting. Companies: Measure the time wasted trying to find a meeting room!
  • Enough bathrooms, so people like me don’t have to go to the men’s room, and shout “Woman incoming, there is no woman’s room on this floor.” (Don’t think I’m kidding. I’m not.)
  • Enough parking, close enough so people don’t have to wonder how long it will take them drive home, after they’ve hiked to their car
  • Lighted parking lots. Keep it safe, please.

There is more. That is the minimum. Think coffee, water, that kind of thing.

You know what’s missing from that list? The stupid “hotel” idea that companies thought they could get away with. “We don’t need a place for employees. They’ll plug in wherever they are, and that will be their place for the day.” The hoteling idea is total nonsense.

Well, that’s a way to make people feel as if they are welcomed, and part of a team. Not! This blog is called “Managing Product Development” for a reason. If you want to release products, you need teams. If you want teams of people to organize in some way, they need to know where to congregate. How the heck can they know where to congregate, if they have no place to sit?

“Hoteling” employees has to be just about the most stupid idea I ever heard. I don’t know who dreamed it up. Probably some architect who has a lovely office to sit in. Or an executive who has a permanent desk.

People need to know they are wanted. Do you want your employees? Give each of them a permanent space.

Oh, and don’t talk to me about introverts. Highly introverted people, who prefer to not talk to people, want to know where they will sit. They just don’t want to talk to more than one person while they sit there. Okay, some of them don’t even want to talk to one person, but they want a place to sit.

What Do You Need for Your Product Development?

Can you make telecommuting work for your organization? Of course you can. You can make geographically distributed teams work. I have a workshop on it, and I just published a paper on it. You are a smart person, working with smart people. The question is this: What will make your product development proceed faster, with more ease, with less cost, and allow you the most flexibility?

One of the reasons I urge my clients to transition to agile if they can, is that agile can provide them those benefits. However, agile is not for everyone. If they decide agile is not for them, we discuss if an iterative approach is best, or an incremental approach is best, or a combination is best. It’s all about what they need for their product development.

If you don’t need a geographically distributed organization, don’t create one. Telecommuting creates one. Instead, make it a policy that everyone come to work. Phase the policy in, as Meyer is. Have a conversation, as Best Buy is.

And, if you got sucked into those crazy workplace architectures, make enough offices/cubicles of large enough size, so that people have a place to put their stuff and work. Oh, and make the cube walls shorter, so people can see me coming, so I don’t have to wear a bike flag. That’s just craziness, too.

Talk With Your People

This is not about anti-parents. This is about bringing working people together for innovation and creativity. How do you solve the problem of long commutes, a reasonable workspace, and core hours?

The best thing you can do is talk about this issue with the people in your company. If you are a manager, don’t think you have all the answers. You might not even understand all the problems.

You don’t have to agree with me. I’m sure I will set off the mommy-wars and the daddy-wars, and the manager-wars, and the employee-wars. Well, I have on my flame-retardant suit. Go ahead. I’m ready! If you have the discussion in your organization about what is best for you, I have done a good job.

I look forward to a vigorous discussion.

17 Comments

  1. It takes a mature team to be proficient at Agile; it takes a seriously mature individual to “successfully” work remotely. The probability that you can have a significant intersection of those with more than a handful of people is pretty low. I believe that most teams that attempt “remote Agilism” (?) are fooling themselves. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I would guess that those exceptions are very small teams with lazer focus.

    Reply
    • Rick, I’m not sure about the mature team part. Maybe in the sense of being able to take the transparency of agile. Maybe that’s the part that requires maturity? If you can accept and welcome transparency, then the remoteness is not a problem. It’s when you don’t have transparency that you start fooling yourselves.

      Reply
  2. Agree 100% except I’m not sure about the “office for each person” bit. At Software for Good, we’re a small team – 7 people, and everyone has a chair at a shared table, a big screen monitor, and headphones when they want to focus on getting tasks done.

    So far, that setup has worked well from what I can tell. It gives people a space of their own. Maybe this is close enough to the “office” you describe in quotes. I know that every time I’ve had to work with people who have actual 4-walls-and-a-door offices, it has hindered productivity & open communication. Even with an open-door policy, it seems to be a deterrent.

    One of the things we sorta unofficially do is work from home when there is a lot of work to do that needs a lot of focus. I’d say that is the exception more than the rule, but it happens. We’re pretty good about not interrupting the headphones-endowed team members, but sometimes staying home makes the ability to focus a guarantee and the productivity soars.

    Reply
    • Peter, you folks have figured out what works for you, and that is good. With a 7-person team, maybe all you need is one team room, and everyone has a seat at the table. Maybe you don’t need any private spaces at all? When it’s time to interview candidates, I hope you have a conference room so you can interview privately. I can imagine other reasons to have meetings that require other private conversations, but not the team work required for the product.

      Sometimes, my productivity soars when I pair. Sometimes, my productivity soars when I have private time in my office. It all depends on what I am doing. I am a little surprised that with a software product, pairing is not what helps you, but I don’t know enough about how you are organized. Since you mention you have to go home to get the productivity you need, I am a little surprised that not having offices of some sort in addition to the table would not help. If it only happens rarely, maybe it’s not a big enough problem to be a problem.

      I’m curious: do people gravitate towards “their” seats at the table?

      Reply
  3. Johanna, this post leaves me dazed and confused. You appear to stake out two extreme positions. On one hand, you argue that certain things are “craziness” like agile telecommuting teams. On the other hand, you argue that companies should determine what works for them because “It’s all about what they need for their product development.”

    I often make the claim the ANYTHING can work. It depends on the effort you’re will to make along with the time and cost you’re willing to absorb. Regardless, much depends on hiring the right people. If you hire people that thrive on face-to-face discussion and then tell them to work from home, your project has just failed but you don’t know it yet.

    Conversely, if you hire people with a promise that they can work from home regularly and then withdraw the privilege, your project, and possibly your company, are doomed.

    We all need to spend more time thinking about how we want to operate and what it takes to be successful. Too many companies use a haphazard approach to running projects. When problems develop, they are quick to blame individuals. Instead, they should examine their approaches and their hiring practices.

    I’d like to encourage you to explore this topic further after you think it through and adopt a clearer position. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Vin, well, maybe I am still jet-lagged from my travel last week. Could be.

      I agree with you and really like what you said here:

      I often make the claim the ANYTHING can work. It depends on the effort you’re will to make along with the time and cost you’re willing to absorb. Regardless, much depends on hiring the right people. If you hire people that thrive on face-to-face discussion and then tell them to work from home, your project has just failed but you don’t know it yet.

      Conversely, if you hire people with a promise that they can work from home regularly and then withdraw the privilege, your project, and possibly your company, are doomed.

      I will be thinking more and writing more about this. Thank you for writing.

      Reply
  4. This is a fantastic posting!

    Reply
  5. I am very supportive of your calling BS on the work from home thing. As an at home (occasionally) worker, while I no longer have kids at home, I find even having my spouse working in the same office a distraction. You also didn’t mention the problems with at home infra (when your own ISP goes down or your kid is downloading god knows what in a torrent its hard to be productive ).

    The balance of a telecommuting policy is this: we need to carefully measure the work output of our team and individuals and have performance expectations for them that work in a distributed environment. If we are not doing that, we are simply not being realistic about our management process.

    What I have always valued about the “occasional” telecommuting process is that I can get “half a day” in stead of “nothing” when an employee or contractor has a family or personal health issue.

    As far as permanent or regular telecommuting, I frankly have never been on a team that was mature enough to make that happen. The collaboration inevitably becomes a challenge that I (as manager) cannot solve because the organization around me is not committed to the infrastructure necessary to making it viable. Software development has a high need for collaboration, and distance increases collaborative friction.

    I also agree that a “permanent hoteling approach” is dumb – however for workers who are permanent telecommuters who need a space in the office when they do come it, it is a viable solution.

    I would love to run an experiment where we have teams do a regular telecommuting with a “collab day” per week – so that we do our planning and high intensity collaboration one day per week and do low intensity collab on webex and video conf with desktop sharing when telecommuting the rest of the time.

    Reply
    • Rich, thanks. When we get together to plan the AYE conference, or what we do now, the AYEQuartet, we get together in person. Always have, always will. We do our work between, independently. But, to plan the conference or this year’s workshop? We had to be together in person. We could not sufficiently collaborate at distance. And, that wasn’t even software development!

      I would love to see your experiment, too.

      Reply
  6. LOL another bandwagon anti telecommuting post. We all know there are never any non work related interruptions at the office right? Wake me up when this fad is over. What a waste of time. Just think what the author is arguing here – more productive to be stuck in traffic then to be getting work done. Moronic.

    Reply
    • JJ, I’m not arguing that you should be wasting time stuck in traffic. I’m all for working with your team to say, “What are our core hours, so I can manage the traffic for my commute?” But, I don’t see how to be agile and work from home every day,which is what the Yahoo! folks were attempting to do. And, too many people who telecommute were attempting to do so without a real infrastructure, which means a private place, away from the home distractions.

      I work from home every day. I don’t do laundry. I don’t cook. When my children were small, we had someone else take care of them, or they went to after-school in the afternoons. I worked. I was not available. I was working. That’s the part I’m attempting to convey. Clearly not very well.

      Reply
  7. For me, the main reason for working at the office is the collaboration. Discussing a problem with a colleague often leads to a solution that is better than either of us would come up with on our own. The same goes for finding difficult bugs – brainstorming and looking through the code together works really well. This can work remotely as well, but I just feel that it works so much better face to face.

    Some people argue that they can’t get anything done at the office because of noise, interruptions and meetings. One way to fix that is to work remotely, but in my opinion, the better way to fix it is to make sure the office lets the developers be productive. That way you don’t sacrifice the face to face interactions.

    I just recently blogged about it here: http://henrikwarne.com/2013/04/02/programmer-productivity-interruptions-meetings-and-working-remotely/

    Reply
    • Henrik, I agree with you. When I collaborate with my AYE colleagues, or Shane or Gil (the people I collaborate with most), the solution is much better than anything I could develop on my own. Do I collaborate remotely? Yes. Are my collaborations better in person? Yes, yes, yes.

      Reply
  8. Hi JR,

    Very timely post. I was able to reference it (and quote from it) during a meeting today.

    Our HR / facilities-planning folks want us to move to a model where 20% of the people work somewhere outside the office each workday. At least they will leave it up to us to figure out how to schedule it.

    My main objection (in addition to your comments on hotelling) is that the way we collaborate is not predictable nor schedulable. It is highly spontaneous and coincidental. Moving to this new model will result in a large productivity loss for a long time.

    I suspect this meeting was just a line-item on “The Plan” (have a meeting with some employees – Check!), but I hope they take into consideration our comments and objections.

    Regardless, thanks for providing me material that made people laugh, then made them think.

    -Dave

    Reply
    • Dave, Oh for goodness’ sake. Well, I am delighted to have provide material that made people laugh and made people think.

      Reply
  9. While I agree that it can be easy to lose focus with a home full of kids, I could also say the same about working in the office. I can usually decide when and where to work, and I work from home maybe once every other week. From my experience, those days are more productive; in the office there is always someone who feel the need to distract you with questions or other things. The number of questions I get in mail, via IM or on the phone is less than a tenth of all the questions I get in a day in the office. And honestly, if I can sit at home and be productive for 9 hours, I would rather do that than sit in traffic for two hours and then be at work for 8 hours.

    Reply

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