Mar 08, 2013

Death of distance, or death by distance. Yahoo tale

March 8, 2013 - There has been a lot of noise about Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer’s memo requesting all remote employees to make arrangements to be in the office - very soon. But one important part of the story isn’t told enough: what this means not only for work-from-home, but also for all remote work - including the one of service providers in shared services type locations. And, what it should prompt many companies to do - which isn’t starting a religion war: rather, think about making remote workers more visible, efficient, and effective.  

Yahoo!’s decision has been widely blamed on the fact that trust fabric of companies may erode in difficult times, and hence it is important to keep an eye on people - and make them feel that you do. Draconian measures (forcing people to show up, some selective culling of the worst offenders) are very tempting. Especially for jobs where the performance metrics don't capture the occasional (or permanent) slacking, the question really becomes burning.  

That is true even for remote teams of service providers. That's why Genpact's obsessive metric driven culture and advanced HR practices are a differentiator. But I believe there's more, and we will see it as we continue creating industrialized, decoupled operations for more complex, less workflow-centered processes. I believe we are moving work to remote locations (home, shared services) and we have just begun to explore new ways of making people visible to each other. Two things are possible.  

First - monitoring, and making it felt. Visibility on people's calendars, reports on their communications and logged-on status, their speed of response to the occasional IM. One can do more - capturing keystrokes, Internet traffic, etc. All this sounds big-brother like to some. I'm on the fence, for two reasons. First, I'm pretty sure that those Yahoos employees who will be forced to either change job or their lifestyle, wouldn't have minded their supervisors having a bit of peace of mind. Remember that distrust is often exacerbated by lack of communication and visibility. Second, all these allegedly sneaky practices are just a duplication of what would happen at work if people were on the same floor. Working from home or from a remote location isn't a way to disappear - it is a way to accommodate lifestyle.  

Second, paying more than lip service to enabling remote work. Indeed, working from home might make it hard to do certain things together. Indeed, the sense of "flow" derived from working in close proximity with others can be lost in people who aren't full self-motivated, and working remote requires discipline that many don't have and for which many of us rely on our innate sense of gregariousness - basically, seeing people running around us makes running a little easier. But also, effectiveness of remote folks is often hampered by the inability to do what people do close to each other: Can you poke your colleague for a quick question? Can you have a water cooler chit chat? Can you sketch something on a white board? Can you show them a screen to discuss?  

The old solutions to this are unnatural, a hodgepodge of phone email web-conference and what not. Very clunky - five user interfaces, three passwords, part of it being unprotected through internet. And certainly the soft aspect of performance measurement that cannot be captured in simple timeliness and accuracy of clear cut tasks, can be lost.  

But there are alternatives. Our own OneFloor Unified Collaboration is one such solution. It indeed facilitates (in some case even "forces", if the organization so chooses) transparency. What is clear is that we all have to evolve. People will not easily give knowledge or complex work to those working far away if visibility on efficiency and effectiveness is hampered. Of course that doesn’t apply to superstars. But for the rest of us, if we want complete privacy miles (or thousands of miles) away from your employer, supervisor or client - and if our operations, IT and HR leaders don’t enable us with real collaboration environments - we should be prepared to stick to a green-screen workflow. I'm not sure that's what we all want.

About the author

Gianni Giacomelli

Gianni Giacomelli

Chief Innovation Leader

Gianni serves as Chief Innovation Leader where he drives and sponsors Genpact’s strategic initiatives aimed at sustaining clients’ transformation into digitally-enabled companies. He also co-leads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) efforts to set up a Collective Intelligence Design Lab.