Telecommuting Isn’t the Villain, at Yahoo or Anywhere

If you’ve read past posts, you know that for two years during the late 1990s, I telecommuted to a job in Northern Virginia from my house in the Boston area. The notion that anyone could, or should, work regularly from home wasn’t completely new, but the internet was making it feasible for more people. My managers let me do it because I had decided to move, didn’t want to quit, and they didn’t want me to quit either.

The performance measures were already in place: as a reporter, I had to write multiple stories every week, and break news. I had to call in for staff meetings. I had regular hours when I was expected to be working, and checking voice mail. Many of the steps we took then reflect the lessons that–15 years later–Joel Dobbs, CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group writes about here.  So when I heard about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s new policy to forbid telecommuting (and according to reports, end rampant slacking off)  it sounded like a red herring. A backdoor way to downsize. Or at least to get rid of people who, if managers had been doing their jobs, should have been disciplined and then fired if they didn’t perform.

I don’t know what went on inside Yahoo, other than what everyone is reading about it. Some jobs, and some employees, do require daily face time. And anyone who has worked on a multi-city team, or as an offsite contractor, knows that the occasional physical meeting builds personal connections that invest team members more deeply in each others’ success. When I was a telecommuter, and later when I managed telecommuters, I looked forward to meetings at the office.

But when business is global, and many employees, especially executives, travel all the time, it’s incongruous to argue that a vibrant, collaborative culture depends on everyone coming to the office every single day. If some subset of Yahoo employees abused telecommuting, it suggests managers didn’t set clear work rules and expectations for performance, or else didn’t enforce them. And If that’s the case, prohibiting work at home isn’t going to fix the problem.

Meanwhile, there’s the evidence that telecommuting, when the job is suited for it, improves productivity and may even save money. Some companies (including some of my clients) even operate virtually. People often turn to collaboration tools to communicate even when they’re in the same building. Or on the same floor. I’ll grant the latter is a bit lazy. But I’ve done it when IM gets me the information I need in the time it would take to walk across the building and back.

I hope that, at Yahoo, Mayer’s telecommuting ban is just a temporary measure. Otherwise, there’s a good chance she’ll drive away employees who are more productive and happy because telecommuting helps them manage their lives.

Why I Bought Another Laptop

One word: spreadsheets.

Late in 2011, as I was assessing the IT needs for my new business, I theorized that it might be possible to move to a tablet as my main computer when my aging laptop died (Read “I Need a Mobile Application Strategy“). Then I signed on two clients to produce survey research reports. Each of the nine reports involved datasets containing dozens of tables.

In theory, you could dock a tablet to a monitor, connect to a Bluetooth keyboard and play with numbers all day. Same goes for writing anything that requires frequently referring to notes. But then, you either chain yourself to a desk, like the old days, or you have to carry around multiple components. As appealing as those portable monitors are, I can’t really see setting one up in the dentist’s waiting room, or my car, or a number of other non-office spaces I’ve found myself working in as I pursue work-life balance (please share if your experience is different).

Almost two years, ago, my former colleague at CIO magazine, Kim Nash, did a story about delivering data for decision-making which concluded that IT leaders have to match the device, and the information on the device, to what people are trying to do. And that’s the case with any tool. So when the logic board in my MacBook Pro failed right after Thanksgiving–only hours after I submitted one of those research reports to a client–I headed to the Apple Store for a new one.

I use the iPad most days, especially to read, deal with my email, and manage my calendar and to-do lists. It’s been useful, too, as a second screen, when I’m in a meeting and need to refer to a presentation. But I can’t see it becoming my primary business device any time soon. On the other hand, the tablet is edging out the laptop for personal applications.

In the kitchen, different pans for different dishes. And at work, different devices for different workloads. Do you agree?

Video Works. So Why Don’t We Use It?

Recently, I covered an event for a client, blogging about each presentation and subsequent discussion. (Sorry I can’t provide a link. The content is proprietary.) The event was in Tuscon, but I attended remotely, via videoconference. So did a handful of participants, including one of the presenters.

Although the technology isn’t perfect, it’s darn good. What technical issues  I encountered—a session in which the video feed wasn’t available, and some poorly placed mics—resulted from human error and (it seemed to me) were easily fixed. Which makes me think that the reason we don’t use video more often has less to do with the tools than with our skills and motivation. We (by which I mean the mid-career people who tend to be running meetings) are comfortable with the telephone, thank you very much. And, speaking for myself, at least, we’re not all completely comfortable in front of the camera.

Consider what I observed during the event I covered. Throughout, the camera was positioned so that the front of the room, and thus the presenters, were visible no matter where they moved in front of the projection screen. The presenters were all senior corporate executives, experienced at delivering information to a variety of audiences. Each one made eye contact with attendees around the room. But unless I wasn’t looking when it happened, not one presenter made eye contact with the camera and thus, with those three or four of us  attending virtually.  Even when table microphones—one for each attendee—were correctly positioned, a couple of people couldn’t manage to speak into them clearly.

We’ve come a long way since the 1990s, when PC makers began bundling webcams with desktops. Back then, I spent two years as a remote employee on a small team. Video over my dial-up connection would have been more trouble than it was worth.  But even conference calls were a struggle.  Some colleagues never got close enough to the speaker for me to hear them. Sound quality was iffy, in any case. And though my co-workers around the conference table never forgot about me entirely, sometimes it was hard to get their attention. Since then, we’ve developed pretty good conference call etiquette. Most people are tuned in to what their colleagues on the phone are saying, and meeting facilitators know how to monitor meeting dynamics to make sure callers are equal participants.

Now video seems poised to become second nature. While it’s true that most companies haven’t yet deployed enterprise video, according to a survey by IDG Enterprise (which I helped to analyze, and which is published here for readers who register) 67 percent of respondents said the influx of consumer devices such as smartphones are prompting them to speed up their plans to deploy Unified Communications & Collaboration tools.

It surprised me a little that only 48 percent of respondents said they used Skype and, especially, that only one-fourth used video chat, given that nearly everyone with a smartphone or an IM account has the capability. Then I thought about it. As a freelancer, nearly every meeting and interview I have is a phone call. Though I use video sometimes, it still feels experimental. For example, It took me a while to find a comfortable arrangement on my laptop screen for taking notes and monitoring the video window at the same time.

Do something often enough, though, and you won’t be able to imagine any other way. I wasn’t born yet when AT&T installed the first  Picturephone. Twenty-three years ago, in Back to the Future II, writer-director Robert Zemeckis imagined videoconferencing would be routine. That movie was set in 2015. We’re nearly there.

I Need a Mobile Application Strategy

The last cover story I edited for CIO magazine, Elisabeth Horwitt’s “How to Craft a Mobile Application Strategy,” is online. The story outlines the key issues IT leaders need to consider as they plunge ahead with mobile apps, including whether future development will be on mobile platforms only (free registration is required). A sidebar covers coping with mobile security threats

As Horwitt notes, the calculation for many CIOs isn’t if they should develop mobile only applications, but when: there will come a time, for many if not all workers, that there’s no need for a desktop or laptop. Though I’m using a laptop right now, I’m writing in a cloud-based word-processing application. The only thing stopping me from finishing it on my iPad is that I don’t have the right peripherals to do it comfortably, like a proper dock. I would probably get over that, though, if I had to write while I was travelling.

I brought the iPad on a recent vacation, and it served as a pretty decent laptop replacement for personal use.  I kept up with email and social media, posted photos, got directions, looked up restaurants and museum exhibits, even bought tickets to a water park (though I did need to print them out to use them, the only time I really needed a desktop. Fortunately, the office manager for the cabin where we were staying obliged me).

With the right apps and infrastructure, I can imagine using a tablet for all my work, too. None of what I do is very computing intensive. And I don’t have lots of legacy applications or data that would be hard to migrate. I might, however, need to find alternatives to some of my applications, and at least a few don’t have the same functionality on the iPad. Changing platforms completely now would be a nuisance, and I don’t really want to spend the time on it.

On the other hand, I don’t really want to be forced into it, which I might be if this middle-aged laptop of mine kicks the bucket. Guess I need a migration strategy, too. What’s yours?