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Johanna Rothman helps managers and teams solve problems and deliver products. Her most recent book is Manage your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects. You can read her blogs and other writings at jrothman.com Johanna is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 115 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Telecommuting, Hoteling, and Managing Product Development

04.01.2013
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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.

Published at DZone with permission of Johanna Rothman, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

Comments

Developer Dude replied on Tue, 2013/04/02 - 11:24am

I worked at home for 9 months, forty hours a week, as a contractor for a company that had downsized so much they no longer had an office for any staff. Most of the staff were developers. We had few problems getting our work done. The main one was communication, but those problems were nor serious. The few times were I struggled was when I needed someone to look over my shoulder at something (usually dev/test system setup), but over 95% of the time a simple email or maybe a phone call worked well enough - it wasn't as efficient and didn't work as well as face to face communication, but it worked and not that much communication was needed.

We had weekly or bi-weekly meetings, depending on what was going on - all were conference calls, including conference calls with users/clients of the company. These mostly worked well. It took some extra effort and follow through (often emailing summaries of the conversations to everybody so we were all on the same page), but it worked with few problems. This mostly worked because we had all worked together before in the same office and everybody knew everybody else (mostly - there was one new person) and we each knew the codebase inside and out - no need to get up to speed on anything.

Before that gig I worked for the same org and worked from home half-time. I was only required to be at the office on meeting days, which were set days two or three days a week, and that worked well too.

The big upside for the company IMO was that I was a LOT more productive at home where I could concentrate on what I was doing without distractions. I am single, no children at home, no dogs, no cats and I am disciplined about working when I work at home. I didn't have to commute so I "arrived" at work fresh and ready to concentrate on work. No chit chat with fellow workers, no distractions.

Moreover, often I could work on something when I most felt like working on it. If I needed a break I could take one, whether it was for five minutes or an hour or an afternoon. As long as I was available to the rest of the team if they needed me - or if I let them know I wouldn't be available if I had an errand to do or wanted to enjoy a nice day - this was never a problem and the company was more than satisfied with the work I did. I did better work when I could work this way because I wasn't forcing myself to work just because I was in a cubical with a boss hovering around - I was doing it because I enjoyed my work, but sometimes I need to step away from it and clear my head to solve a thorny problem.

The upside for me was that I would not spend 1 to 2 hours a day commuting, I saved money working from home, and I enjoyed it because I could concentrate and get more done. I don't like goofing off on someone else's dime, I like to feel that they are getting their money's worth.

I have a friend who started his own s/w dev company, doing mobile dev mostly. He found he could not work at home because he had a toddler who demanded his attention when daddy was home. So he either takes his child to someone to care for her (his wife works too) or he goes to a private office he rents. Either way is more or less the equivalent of telecommuting. The key is no distractions - you can't have the TV on or kids running around or your spouse asking you to do something - you need a quiet space where you can work uninterrupted. This means that if you have kids and/or spouse that they know that you are just as unavailable to them in that space as if you were at work.

So, in short, in my opinion, and experience, telecommuting can work and work well - if the worker and the organization are willing to do what it takes to make it work.

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