“Work From Home”

joe —  Sat 2-Mar-13

WFBMarissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, really ticked off a lot of people when she killed her firm’s Work From Home (WFH) policy last week. Not only were Yahooians angered, but so were many who thought it might set off a new trend.

I am not sure I have a firm stand on whether working from home is a good thing or a bad thing. But, I do believe most of us are looking at the problem through the wrong lens. If the goal is to make the better choice, we have to reframe our perspective.

If you are the one that gets to decide your team’s WFH policy, you have a big, first decision to make. Do you view WFH as a tool or as an employee benefit? A benefit is something a firm gives an employee with the goal of enticing the person to work for them. We have 401K plans, insurance, and stock options because it is what is required to compete for employees.

When WFH is considered to be an employee benefit, whether an employee is more productive working from home or in the office is irrelevant. You judge a benefit on whether it accomplishes its goal – hiring and retaining the right people.

Army WFHYou may decide that WFH is not an employee benefit, but rather a tool that is used to improve some aspect of your business other than hiring or retention. Maybe the tool helps you get more time from your employees because the office is located in a location that requires a long commute. Maybe the tool improves your innovation rate because employees get isolated time to think.

Tools are different from general benefits in that they must be matched to the right job to be done. It’s silly to tell a mechanic “I need you to fix my engine, but, you can only use a screwdriver.” It is equally foolish is to say, “I need you to fix my engine, but, you can’t use a screwdriver.” The same is true for the WFH Tool.

A tool is used on a case-by-case basis and may be borrowed.

Case-by-case: Not everyone can or should be allowed to work from home. Only those meeting the WFH Tool goals qualify for inclusion. If the goal is to regain lost commute time, only those exceeding a certain commute time are eligible. If the goal is to increase the innovation levels on the team, you should be able to measure the difference in innovation to know if you are using the correct tool. The problem is that we often can’t find a way to quantify the expected business results.

Case-by-case also means that not everyone is eligible. Some people should not be allowed to WFH; they have too many distractions or temptations that make them less productive. Some people are miraculously effective at home; they should be encouraged to WFH. Too many people think they work better from home, but don’t. It takes a strong leader to have the hard conversation why one person can work from home but not another.

Borrowed: You can let someone use the WFH Tool and then expect it is returned when finished. If a person has a special project they are working on and can benefit by working from home this week, borrowing them the WFH Tool might be worthwhile. This doesn’t entitle them to WFH when the goal has been met, and that has to be clearly stated at the start of the assignment.

Every tool has a purposeOur challenge comes when we don’t decide if the WFH policy is an employee benefit or a tool – it’s a toolfit. Toolfits often start out as a tool, but then extend into a perceived benefit. In my earlier years, I had an employee who was a monster worker from home. He had incredible discipline and crushed it whenever he didn’t have to come into the office. It wasn’t long after he started WFH that others asked for the same benefit. Being a noob manager, I couldn’t say no because that “wouldn’t be fair to everyone.” Most of my team were not nearly as effective at home as they were in the office. Group productivity soon dropped. What I had originally saw as a tool, was now perceived as a benefit. I was stuck with a toolfit.

Marissa has the same challenge. She sees her company WFH policy as a tool – a tool that wasn’t achieving her corporate productivity goals. The tool, however, was being sold as a benefit. Of course there is outrage when a benefit is being taken away. Many people probably came to Yahoo because of the WFH policy. Many think it is equivalent to a pay cut or the removal of a 401K plan. She has a toolfit.

A company needs to clearly communicate whether their WFH policy is a benefit or a tool and then be consistent about its application. Using a tool as a temporary benefit, will lead to trouble.