Update: When How and Where Matters

Last week I posted a piece on telecommuting, in which I shared a bit of my own inconsistency on the subject, in Any Time, Any Place. I wrote about how telecommuting makes long-term sense for the human race, but not that much for my company (gulp … the word “hypocrisy” was included). We’re crammed into cities and jammed up in freeways and commuter transit. I added, however, that our company (Palo Alto Software) has had mixed experiences with telecommuting and distance working:

In this company we like to have our people on our team together during the day, in our one location, mostly a bunch of cubes. We like the instant communication involved, the immediate contact, the sense of team. Programmers talk to other programmers, and marketers talk to other marketers.

Years ago we tried working with programmers in Pakistan, and although the people were competent, the outsourcing didn’t work well for us because they were on the other side of the world, asleep while we were awake.

This morning I read Pam Stewart’s Escape From Cubicle Nation referencing a previous post with a starkly different point of view on that same question:

Focus on the work people do, not how or when they do it. Some positions require people to be at their desk at an appointed hour to answer customer calls or to participate in live meetings.  But others can do their work from home, early in the morning, late in the evening or dialing in from the local Starbucks.  The turnover magnet you have for losing great employees is not the competitor down the street, it is the idea of freedom and flexibility for the self-employed.  Your employees have different biorhythms and working styles and activities going on in their lives.  If you provide flexible work options and don’t make people sit unnecessarily at their desk, you will keep some great employees who would otherwise leave.  A manager who is afraid to offer telecommuting to her employees because she thinks they will slack off is just showing her own weakness. Great managers build accountability into flexible work plans and manage performance aggressively.

I think she makes a very strong point. She’s right on the principle.

And furthermore, the difference between these two points of view illustrates one of the finer points of real-world business management: the need for flexibility over policy, case-by-case management over writing the rules. Larger issues frequently fall victim to specific compromise for practical reasons.

Hypocrisy (from my previous post) is too strong a word for this kind of compromise. I take it back. It’s about dealing with the real world. In this case, the issue of how and where people do things, we probably end up distinguishing between different jobs. We go from one extreme, let’s say the proofreader or data entry person who can do the work alone, from anywhere, at any time; to the programming team member who needs to be close to the others, in on impromptu meetings, etc.

It’s easy to see that changing technology will offer us more alternatives in the future. I do Web meetings frequently these days, often with computers coordinated (WebEx, GoToMeeting, etc.) and conference calls, on rare occassions with video (Skype). Those facilities can solve the where people are working, but not the when.

In the meantime, we’re trailing edge on this trend.

Regarding compromise, you simply can’t run a business without having to make some compromises between what’s real and what’s possible.



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