If you can't reach me, you didn't try.

Disclosure: rant.

The article I read this morning (“How Marissa Mayer Figured Out Work-At-Home Yahoos Were Slacking Off”) infuriates me. I understand why it does; it makes me defensive because I, too, am a work-from-home employee for a tech firm. In our company’s parlance, that phrase becomes “I am WFH.” I am WFH because my company’s closest office is over a thousand miles away from me, and it would be financially and socially disastrous for me to uproot my life. Nevertheless, it’s easy to fear that my company might someday make the same decision Yahoo did.

If I want to work at Acquia (and I do) I must either be extraordinarily successful at being a WFH employee or I will have to give up my completely paid-off house and take a six-figure mortgage in either Boston or Portland. 

I have what you may call “incentive.”

Here’s what kills me about the article: generalizations are bad when it comes to employees. Proximity doesn’t necessarily guarantee productivity. A shitty employee is going to be a shitty employee, whether he’s working from home in his pajamas or sitting in the cube next to you in a business suit. A sane, reasonable, and thoughtful WFH policy allows a company to keep an extraordinary employee even if the employee’s life dictates that they be somewhere else.

For the right person, and the right company, this policy can do more than just lure and retain good employees; it can directly influence loyalty and happiness. A good employee, taken care of in such a way by his/her employer, is likelier to be loyal to that company. In nerd terms: if the company does you a solid, you’re likely to do a solid for them, too.

But here’s the flip side. Work-from-home can, and will, be abused. I’ve lost count of the number of contractors, workers, and companies I’ve had to say this to:

Yes, I work from home. No, that actually doesn’t mean I have a great deal of flexibility when you can come over to perform Work A or Repair B. I hold longer hours than most in-office employees do, have the same need for a stable / quiet / productive work environment, and have meetings and conference calls there. I require the same kind of scheduling courtesy that any working adult does.

Some people can put quotes around it – I’m going to “work from home” today – meaning they’re going to check email once or twice, put some laundry in, and respond back eventually if someone pings them, but the reality is that it’s a day on the couch. I loathe this with a fiery passion, because not only does it NOT describe my daily life, it’s so far removed from my day-to-day work life that it’s laughable.

Take, for instance, the week that just ended. Here’s my work calendar, with product-specific names removed:

Image I'll be using in my work-from-home rant: domesticat.net/2013/03/if-you-cant-reach-me-you-didnt-tryLast week’s calendar

I am responsible for training new employees. Right now, I have two that are actively onboarding. They get as much time with me as they need, every day. These two currently get me for 1-2 hours daily of active 1:1 or 2:1 mentoring – and that’s because they’re late in the onboarding process. New employees get even more time. 

I’m also working on a couple of major internal initiatives. I oversee training. I monitor the weekly releases to our codebase so I know what will affect my team. I am available on a moment’s notice to any of my trainees, past and present; when they walk away from the end of their 3-week intensive onboarding time I tell them, “You don’t lose access to me. If you need me to walk you through a ticket, help you work through a customer crisis, determine what you need to do next, or figure out the right person to talk to, that’s what I’m here for. Phone, email, chat, skype – your choice.”

They take me up on it. Frequently multiple times per hour.

Ostensibly, my hours are 8am-5pm local time, but because I’m geographically located between our Boston and Portland offices, I frequently end up covering both Boston and Portland hours so that trainees in both offices are taken care of.

I take a deep breath and look at the article again and realize that what I am is defensive. I worry that because I’m here, by myself, at home, no one sees this. I worry that I’ll be tarred with the same brush as those who treat Work From Home as being the same as Slack From Couch, when my constant availability, output, and responsiveness clearly indicate otherwise.

In my previous job, I used to grumble about business clothing, and how pantyhose and professional shoes had nothing to do with the quality of my work. I’ve been given the opportunity to prove that statement right, and I’ve relished it.

I’m betting there were some Yahoo employees who were like me. I hate that the Slack From Couch crowd ruined it for them. I’ll continue along my path, though: I may not be sitting next to you, but I’m constantly available and responsive through email, phone, instant message chats, skype, and sometimes even IRC

If you can’t reach me, you didn’t try.

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Comments

r4gni's picture

I hear you. My father used to

I hear you. My father used to work in a sales job from home. He worked long hours, sometimes put in extra hours off the clock. He maintained good work ethics and was still a good sales person. There are jobs like his which have been about lots of traveling around that have been around for some time, so why is being in a cubicle seen as such a magical place?

Charli's picture

We’ve battled the whole “but

We’ve battled the whole “but you work from home so you can…” for years. Including the perception of people that we weren’t working because we were sitting under a laptop. If you’re writing code or a novel, work doesn’t look nearly as visibly work-like as, say, digging a ditch. It’s still work with a lot of words or code to show for it at the end of the day, problems solved, solutions written out, etc. This became a bigger issue with kids in school. No, I can’t be in the classroom every Wednesday as a teacher’s helper, no I can’t chaperone the field trip, I work. You have to constantly police your boundaries in a way office workers don’t.

That said, productivity studies do show that people who WFH are more productive because they have fewer interruptions. Interruptions are very expensive in lost time and focus. It’s too bad that Yahoo isn’t looking at better ways to increase productivity, because being in-office doesn’t mean you won’t be surfing the internet or standing by the coffee maker. Plenty of in-office workers are not actually producing the hours they’re physically present. And Forbes has an interesting take on why this policy change doesn’t address Yahoo’s real issues here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/adamhartung/2013/03/01/why-yahoo-investors-n…

And you go keeping mortgage-free. : )

Camilla Fox's picture

For me, the interplay between

For me, the interplay between WFH/productivity/morale is complex.  I have a schedule with some office time and some work from home time each week (a different beast from full time work from home).

Morale and productivity go together pretty tightly for me; if productivity is already high, I’ll be logistically able to put in a little more from home than from the office.  But if morale is low, then I am far more likely to pull out something useful if I rescind the schedule and go to the office.  But, if the in-office critical mass is low (many other people out sick or working remotely) then being there may be good to ok for productivity while being ok to bad for morale.

My guess about Yahoo is that for rescinding their work from home policy to be a reasonable tactical decision, they (the Yahoo management team) must believe that anyone on their staff capable of maintaining motivation from home has long since left for greener pastures.  (I’m not saying that they believe this correctly… I don’t know either way.)

domesticat's picture

Well, yeah. Because you’re

Well, yeah. Because you’re like me. You show up on time, stay late, and you’re ALWAYS available.

Every time I hear grumbles about how WFH employees don’t work out well at our company, I mutter “Go on, tell me that Aurelien, Thomas, ChrisO, Niels, Gord, and I all suck at our jobs and aren’t integrated with the team.”

Niels's picture

Yes this article has upset me

Yes this article has upset me too and the levels of internal measurements we have could totally prevent this kind of debate in the first place, there’s many articles on the web that advocate and show proof of the beneficial effects for a company. Nevertheless, I think this shouldn’t be publicly discussed Smile

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