About Johanna Rothman

Johanna consults, speaks, and writes about managing product development. She helps managers and leaders do reasonable things that work. You can read more of her writings at jrothman.com.

Telecommuting, Hoteling, and Managing Product Development

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.
 

Reference: Telecommuting, Hoteling, and Managing Product Development from our JCG partner Johanna Rothman at the Managing Product Development blog.

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3 Responses to "Telecommuting, Hoteling, and Managing Product Development"

  1. Laurence Burton says:

    Our company is transitioning to agile teams and we’ve been told we can no longer telecommute the one or two days a week we used to. I am a developer. So…

    Yesterday, I couldn’t get my scheduled development work done because I was at work. So last night I got home about 7PM and worked until 1AM to get it done. Then I got up this morning. It was raining and I live in Atlanta so the commute was over an hour. As I walked into the building around 9:30AM I couldn’t help thinking to myself “If I were working at home I would have already finished two hours of coding”. After my obligatory morning meetings (that I used to call in to and work while they were in progress) I just sat down at my computer and saw a reference to your article on my Google+ stream. I haven’t written a line of code yet and it is 11:15AM.

    My question is an easy one –

    How does anything you’ve said in this article relate to the real world I’m living in?

    You seem to inhabit an alternate universe where working from home is less productive than working at work. That’s just not been my experience at all. You totally ignore the obvious fact that telecommuting means no commuting, thus more time. You make no mention of the real world experience where being at work means distractions, pre-emption of higher priority tasks for those that happen to pop up in real time, a long team lunch instead of a work-in-front-of-the-computer lunch, etc, etc. etc.

    How does anything in this article relate in any way to my real world?

    • I kind of agree with Laurence here. Even for me, (whatever little) Work-from-home I have done, has, without exception been more productive, and less tiring (due to the saved 3 hrs of home-office-home commute each day – I am talking about Delhi / Gurgaon).
      But at the same time I make it a point to be in office at-least 3 days of the working week. That way you get to meet the team, the managers, the business; though in any case you are in touch with all of them through the week over: phones, Telecons, Skype videocons, and co. mail. In fact it gets busier when working from home, as you get hardly 15 mins of lunch / breakfast times, and practically no one for a one-off chit-chat.

  2. Lloyd says:

    Telecommuting requires great management skills and getting the right human resource to do a job or task. Frequent follow-ups to the current job status, and progress development as a whole.

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