To Allow Remote Work or Not? Perspectives from Workbar’s Founder

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Much has been discussed about Yahoo putting an end to their work-from-home (“WFH”) policies, and even though Marissa’s announcement was almost two months ago, I still get questions about this as larger companies ask me about Workbar. My first reaction to the news was, ‘good for you Yahoo’.  They need an infusion of creativity and innovation into their strategy, and a good way to do this is to have people physically work together.  Workbar was built on this philosophy.  However, thinking more about it, Yahoo’s WFH ban addressed the symptoms of poor management and a core cultural illness.  Sending everyone back into the office reminds me of grade school when I got grounded by my parents or sent to the principal’s office for misbehaving.  Yahoo is treating their employees like children rather than trusting them to work in the best way for themselves as well as to the benefit of the company.

 

workbar community

A key element of the collaborative environment at Workbar is that members are in control of their day.  They choose where and when they work.  They may work for large companies, they may be part of a startup team, or they may be freelancers working on projects for both large companies and startups.  The common denominator is that individuals have choice and independence in how and where they spend their day.  To accomplish this, there needs to be a healthy respect between employee and employer.  Both trust each other to seek out a balance of productivity and creativity, a balance of solo work, inter-company discussions, and a healthy set of external relationships.

Sounds great, but as Yahoo shows, companies have some inherent pitfalls in leaving the where-to-work decision up to the employees.

The WFH Catch 22…

Employees have rightfully come to expect some level of remote work.  Why shouldn’t they?  If I break down work into components that make up most of an average professional’s day, I can divide this list into interactive tasks and independent tasks.  The interactive tasks need to happen in an office or alternative workspace, such as Workbar, where the team can come together; while the solo ones often are well-suited for a WFH setting.  Check out this Herman Miller video demonstrating the importance of excelling in company collaboration.

remote working

If we look closely at the interactive tasks, many of them are, by nature, unplanned.  Briefings take place in planned meetings, but equally as important are the somewhat random updates you get from bumping into a colleague.  Mentoring can be accomplished in formal settings, but is more natural through the offhand help of a coworker acquired by just grabbing lunch together periodically.

Using writing as an analogy, I like to think of the informal aspects of interactive tasks as controlling the tone in writing. Without informal interactive work, our day can become dry, boring, and laborious – it’s a job instead of a career or a passion.  As individuals, we end up prioritizing our solo work over other tasks.  These are assigned tasks with deadlines and deliverables, so of course we are going to want to get these things done so we can switch gears and have fun; and of course it’s easier to get through a ton of solo work without the distraction of others.

Here comes the Catch 22.  If each employee gets to choose the best setting for their work, and they tend to prioritize solo work, the unplanned elements of interactive work are going to suffer.  Next thing you know, you are in Yahoo’s shoes.

Remote Work Duck Soup

So how are top companies addressing the natural Catch 22 related to remote work policies?  Here are three general strategies:

Make it too nice to not show up:

One method is to create an awesome office.  Inc. puts out a list of the World’s Coolest Offices that is pretty inspiring.  I’d surely be more apt to want to show up at one of these offices rather than your average cube farm.  Around Boston, we’ve seen a number of companies take this approach – some of them participate in our OuterSpaces distributed coworking network.  Communispace, for example, has designed a mostly open workspace with bays for different teams working in groups.  They’ve included an ample amount of breakout areas, phone rooms and conferencing areas so people achieve a combination of independent and interactive work.  To me, the best part of a space like this is a huge kitchen and coffee station.  These areas organically become the de facto place for ad hoc interaction, as well as a functional spot for company-wide meetings.

Be onsite but mobile:

Other companies enable remote work though formal mobile worker programs where employees do not come into the office.  Instead, the company sets up specialized centers for mobile workers to work together when they are “on campus”.  These denser collaborative areas are intentionally designed as a space for formal and informal interactive tasks and connections – meetings, group work, conference calls, bumping into each other in the kitchen – and are less focused on individual work, which can happen from many locations including an employee’s home.

Novartis is a good example of a company that has taken this approach.  As they rolled out their mobile worker program, where certain employees don’t have fixed desks, they opened a few on-campus collaboration centers.  People who opt into the mobile program get lockers in one of the centers and use it as a base, while at other times they are able to work from home or elsewhere.  As a next phase this summer, Novartis will extend its mobile program to Workbar, so participants can choose their work location between home, the on-campus mobility centers, or Workbar’s coworking centers.

Follow a fully distributed work model:

Writer Scott Berkun has compiled a list of 100% distributed companies with at least 20 employees. The largest or most well-known names on the list – 37Signals, Automattic Inc. (known as WordPress) and GitHub – not surprisingly have a distributed model as a core element of both their products and their own company culture.  This tells me that successfully operating with a 100% distributed workforce is achievable, although probably not for everyone.  Scott spent a year as a team leader at WordPress and shared his findings in a Harvard Business Review article about how this company thrives with a fully distributed model.  He sites that proper tools, culture and adjustment of company protocols are all needed to keep up corporate creativity and productivity.

What’s next?

Remote work as some part of the workspace equation is only going to grow.  We choose what we wear to the office, and next we will choose when we show up to the office.  Flexible workspace practices make sense for companies interested in lowering their operating expenses, improving employee work/life balance, and in global environmental issues.

To not end up like Yahoo, though, companies should give some thought and planning into how they want to enable people to work remotely and how they will keep communication lines open.  Before moving into a distributed work model, companies can start immediately with putting a culture in place that will keep creativity and productivity flowing, even when people aren’t forced to be physically present.

 
About the Author:  Bill Jacobson is the Co-Founder and CEO of Workbar. Contact him via email bill@workbar.com or Twitter @instantbill.