My political platform: Bringing back capes, gloves, postage stamps, anti-hypocrisy and flexible work options!

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It’s another one of those random days where random thoughts are weaseling their way into my brain too fast to keep track of them.

I’m not sorry we loved, but I hope I didn’t keep you too long.

First of all, I overthink. All the time. All weekend in between working and then taking breaks from that work to do other work, I was beating myself up over the realization that it is always just when you ease into a comfort level, feeling like you can let your guard down, that you are at your most vulnerable, a victim to be gutted. You know, gutted and chopped into pieces, not unlike a poor, hapless young giraffe minding his own business in a Copenhagen zoo (and see below). Trust me.

In other news (or non-news), what the hell is wrong with Fox News and other conservative talking heads? I cannot come up with words – nothing that has not already been said. They have started blabbing about how free healthcare disincentivizes working. Who says it best? Why, Jon Stewart, of course!

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-february-6-2014/terror-on-bulls–t-mountain

Writing (oh so seamless the segue) about disincentives to work and purported laziness, I was heartened to see a series of articles from Virgin on the future of flexwork (Richard Branson is a big supporter of flexible work solutions). Three cheers! It’s one thing for me to bang my own pots and pans on the subject of flexible, remote and virtual work (only I hear the ceaseless clanging – and maybe a handful of other folks who happen upon this blog). It is another thing entirely when someone as respected and well-known as Richard Branson puts his weight behind this flexibility.

The website covers different aspects of flexible work – which can include remote work, shared locations, next-gen workspaces and enabling “intrapreneurship”. Be still my heart.

Of course, another aspect of flexible work, as I have learned since the dawn of my professional life, is doing the most flexible kind of work there is (and that means you will get a lot of flexibility but you are going to have to be equally flexible in kind – and sometimes to your own detriment): freelancing. I find these days that when I apply for jobs that are not ideal for me but my skill set matches some other need a company has, I get calls on occasion offering me freelance projects, and I cannot complain.

On a slightly tangential note, I will never get used to how potential employers in Scandinavia, in formal interview settings, often use the word “shit” in interview conversation. This must be a failure to understand that “shit” is not quite the casual profanity that they imagine it to be. (It makes me laugh.)

As for the music and magic of hypocrisy, who embodies it better than my favorite punching bag, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! disaster fame? The Virgin remote work segment highlights the hypocrisy and head-scratching quality of Mayer’s decision to end distance-work options for her employees (“How odd that the head of a tech company that provides online communication tools doesn’t see the irony in that statement?”). Mayer has become the lightning rod for this issue, really. One article I read questioned the fairness of piling all the blame on Mayer when other large corporations scaled back or eliminated their distance work options at the same time (e.g. Best Buy). The hypocrisy of it – the real rub – is precisely what the Virgin article on supporting remote work points out – a tech company supposedly at the forefront (or wanting to believe it is still at the forefront) of innovation and online communication is taking the workplace back to horse-and-buggy days when most of the tech world is, I don’t know, driving a Tesla or taking a high-speed train.

Another nod to hypocrisy, even if not an entirely matching overlap, is the recent decision of a zoo in Copenhagen, Denmark to kill a perfectly healthy young giraffe in its care and feed it to the zoo’s lions. I posted something about this on my Facebook wall, which sparked an immediate argument between two people who are strangers across the world from each other. One argued that those of us who were lamenting the giraffe’s senseless death were hypocrites who cannot handle how nature works when it’s shown to us with transparency. While I can appreciate the argument on its surface, the bottom line is – this happened in a ZOO, not the wild. This took place, apparently, in front of zoo visitors (the killing and the feeding pieces to lions). Yeah, if a family went on safari somewhere or were out in the wild, maybe “nature” and its transparency would be expected. In the zoo? Not so much. The zoo has defended its decision and now is paying an unfortunate price (I saw on the news that the zoo’s employees are receiving death threats now).

Back to the flexwork thing – all the articles come down to one thing: trust. Flexwork is possible when you have trust and no need to micromanage. You would also think we could trust a zoo not to kill a juvenile giraffe, and maybe once upon a time, people would have thought Marissa Mayer would not take a giant tech company back to Little House on the Prairie.

The changing workscape: New frontiers in virtual office possibilities

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Given the fact that people do have different work styles that lend themselves to working in different ways – and that workplaces are constantly paying lip service to the idea that we have to infuse our entire organizations with innovative ways of working, and we finally have the mostly seamless technology options to make this feasible – we are in a unique place to encourage virtual work and home offices now more than ever.

Everything is affected by the interplay and interconnectedness of technology and our work lives. Why would workers accept being forced to be chained to a desk in an office – or conversely, why would employed limit their talent pool to the immediate vicinity? Especially in global companies that seek budgetary solutions to increasingly competitive and austere business landscapes. Not every employee is going to want to work remotely all the time, and not every job or project is ideal for this set up. But being flexible enough to see where efficiencies can be gained, employees can be happier and more productive, where costs, sometimes significant, can be saved and even semi-unrelated matters, such as increasingly long and taxing commutes to and from offices and traffic gridlock can be reduced, is the first step toward a new “frontier”. Looking at the way a remote worker thinks, or how the workforce thinks about remote work, it is clear that the trend leans toward a more flexible future. And would give people the sense that they had greater freedom and more control and balance in their lives.

How workers think about remote work

How workers think about remote work

The change is coming – it’s happening – but it is slow. When Marissa Mayer made the controversial decision to call the sheep back to the farm (her Yahoo! workers were told that telecommuting was strictly verboten and were required to return full-time to the office – a topic I cannot seemingly shut up about), it seemed like the most backward move, and the tech media dissected and analyzed this perplexing choice to death. A Forbes writer captured my thoughts in a nutshell:

Some research published by the MIT Sloan Management Review suggests that bosses are roughly nine percent more likely to consider an employee dependable if you spend time at the office. I know that was the consensus when I entered the workforce thirty years ago, but I thought we were a little more enlightened now.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine sent me an article written by Robert Pozen for the Harvard Business Review. This study conducted by Kimberly Elsbach found (agreeing with the MIT study), after interviewing 39 corporate managers, that they all generally felt like employees who spent more time in the office were more dedicated, more hardworking, and more responsible. These guys sound just like my dad.” (Emphasis in italics is mine.)

The writer goes on to argue the same points I am always making – as a knowledge worker, it is not like we are ever really “turned off”. The idea of a 40-hour-work-week and the whole 8 to 5 mentality just does not exist. The writer continues, “When manager(s) judge their employees’ work by the time they spend at the office, they impede the development of productive work habits.” He goes on to question whether Mayer, in making her unpopular decision, ignored research on the subject. It seems to me that Mayer ignores data and research all the time since taking the helm at Yahoo! Her choices, as I write about ad nauseam, seem driven by some sort of strange gut instinct (that is not well-tuned) than by data, research or good advice.

What really gets to the heart of it though is an article called “A new workplace manifesto: In praise of freedom, time, space and working remotely”, which covers the full range of benefits of telecommuting, pitting them against the downsides of the traditional work model (e.g. long commutes that lead tomisery, associated with an increased risk for obesity, insomnia, stress, neck and back pain, high blood pressure and other stress-related ills like heart attacks and depression, and even divorce”; the uncontrolled level of interruption and idle conversation, useless meetings and so on once you get to the office; go home in another hell commute. Go home, repeat.). As the article points out, it is drudgery. And the author, David Heinemeier Hansson, is in a position to know. As the creator of popular project management tool Basecamp and web framework Ruby on Rails and a partner in the software company 37signals (renamed/reinvented recently under the Basecamp name) – all active parts of a busy virtual-work future, he has his finger right on the pulse of this aspect of the changing workscape. He and co-author Jason Fried have captured a great deal of this – and addressed many of my complaints and dreams – in a book called Remote: Office Not Required. (Recommended!) You can also check out remote job opportunities on WeWorkRemotely.

The article gets to the point I have been trying to make – the drudgery of the surroundings of work is not to be confused with the work itself. “It’s time to reject the false dichotomy between work and luxury. See, none of this is about escaping the intellectual stimulation of work itself. Work is not the enemy we’re trying to outrun. We’re simply running from those accidental circumstances.”

I love my work, but I know I have always been better at it when I have the focus and freedom to do it from my home office. No commute, no being exposed to all the office illnesses that spread like wildfire, no major drains on my concentration. Naturally this works because I am primarily a writer and need the focus. Maybe someone who is a project manager who has many stakeholders to manage would have a more difficult time of it, especially in a tradition-driven, traditional industry. But this too is changing. Productivity solutions and software are making all-virtual companies a reality.

Apart from having to sell the idea to the more staid and conservative workplaces, there is still a kind of stigma attached to the idea of virtual work, as though it is inherently scammy, “But it’s still early days and it’s still “weird.” Like Internet dating was in 1997. Remote working still reminds most people of either scammy signs at the side of the road that promise, “$1,000/day to work from home!” (without mentioning what the work is exactly) or social hermits who never leave their house or put clothes on before noon.” (I love the reference to “like Internet dating in 1997”. If we have gotten past the stigma there, why can’t the same be said of something productive like work?)

That’s the Good News” – John Grant

Pile on Yahoo! I’ve got my shovel

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I am not sure where all my ire for Yahoo! came from. Sure, the whole backpedalling on allowing employees a work-from-home option pissed me off even though I don’t work there. I think technology companies moving backwards like this is always counterproductive, a bad idea and not a way to garner employee loyalty or happiness – especially if you are taking away something that employees already had and valued.

I won’t even start on the tech missteps – not even getting the basics rights, like major Yahoo! mail and other service outages and redesign debacles that basically just piss off loyal users.

What is the trend you’re sensing? Yes, Yahoo! keeps making big, grand changes that piss everyone off. They are not making anyone happy, they are investing time and money and yet always come off like – first and foremost – they don’t give a shit what their users want. They are stepping backwards or stepping on someone’s toes or taking things a step too far. Or two-stepping to long-dead trends.

Today I was researching Yahoo!’s move to hire respected journalist Katie Couric as the face of its “media empire”. Smart move in that Katie Couric is a smart, respected journalist. But is it a smart move in terms of what they can actually do or expect to gain? Is it a smart move in terms of what Yahoo!’s audience and users want? I am sure they have run their numbers (although I cannot imagine that they take into account user needs given all the disasters they’ve launched into the world in recent years), and I want to say first of all that going in, guns blazing on hiring Katie Couric is a move that, on its surface, looks like wanting everyone’s 60-something grandma to stand up and take note. It’s not going to impress or attract a younger demographic. It’s probably not going to attract the army of women Oprah Winfrey once commanded (Katie sure did not manage anything like that with her daytime tv talk show).

Women in the 35-65 group might notice just because Couric is a marginally powerful and highly visible woman (not unlike Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s beleaguered and not very likeable CEO – not that I think CEOs need to be likeable, and I don’t love bagging on a female CEO since there are so few of them – but, from my outlying half-observant distance, I just think Mayer is not particularly good at her job). I doubt that Couric’s presence is going to interest anyone – at least not internet users. Maybe Yahoo!’s target demographic is 65-year-old women because everything Yahoo! has done seems remarkably in line with what older audiences, just on the edge of not understanding the digital world but trying to, might be into.

Couric has also sort of failed at every major news anchor bid she’s taken on so far, so it seems counterintuitive to sink six million dollars a year on giving Couric an ill-defined, part-time gig that gets Yahoo! a few mentions in the mainstream and tech press. “Reading the headlines — Katie Couric, Saturday Night Live cast members, David Pogue all joined Mayer on stage — I wondered if it was 1999 again. Content as a core strategy rings of AOL in the early aughts. Let’s say it’s a good idea — are you really building a future consumer base on journalists from the most legacy of media? Probably not.”

Yahoo! might think that broadcast dollars will follow Couric to the digital realm and thus that’s the play. I have my doubts. “Faced with consistently declining ad prices, Yahoo needs a shot of exclusive, high-profile content to get viewers to stick around and advertisers — especially TV advertisers — to pay attention.” It’s thus not about the content the audience wants but more about ad pricing, which can be quite lucrative. From a content point of view (what viewers want), this seems like a really bad idea. From a revenue standpoint, it is more of a calculated risk – Mayer is probably betting that big-money advertisers and the types coming from broadcast media would be made of more traditional, possibly even conservative, stuff, and thus would put their money where Couric’s mouth is. Smart? Shrewd? Profitable? Remains to be seen.

The bottom line, as the cited Forbes article above puts it, is: “It’s one thing to acquire a demographic you want, à la the Tumblr acquisition, it’s another to find the developers who can figure out what that demographic wants next. If Mayer is going to win me back to Yahoo — and more importantly, those who never had the habit — it will be by figuring out what I want and need before I do.” (Emphasis mine.) It’s not sorcery. From my vantage point, it doesn’t look like Yahoo! knows or understands that – and it does not even appear to be the business Yahoo! is in.

Must I Paint You a Picture?

The changing workscape: Would you want to work there?

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In a million years I would not consider working somewhere like Yahoo! now. Not that I would have anyway (never mind that they might not be remotely interested in me). After the very public, very controversial take-back of work-at-home privileges leveled by Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, the idea of working somewhere like that feels backwards. For a forward-looking technology company, albeit with its own strong opinions on what will help them to innovate again (but seriously, is Yahoo! ever really going to be considered as within the innovation vanguard again?), taking such a polarizing action (polarizing both internal employees and talent in the ultra-competitive and shorthanded tech sector and the general public – or at least interested parties in the tech industry), while garnering some attention (mostly negative*), does not really strike me as a place any forward-thinking, innovation-minded employee would strive to be. Not just because they might want to work at home – that slap in the face is the tip of the iceberg – but because the one-size-fits-all and iron fist of “this is how it is” approach doesn’t endear anyone to any workplace.

Some companies have quiet policies discouraging remote work, while others don’t make a “policy” but give managers the authority and autonomy to assess the individual situation and employee as to how best to handle remote work. A blanket answer rarely works for anything, so why it would work in a situation where work styles are so clearly different is beyond me. (I am an introvert and it explains a lot about my passion and agitating for remote work options.) It might be too early to render a verdict, but I don’t see anything revolutionary or interesting coming from Yahoo! since Mayer’s decision to forbid virtual work. Not all publicity is good publicity.

In an unrelated matter, I just thought of how the CEO of a company I worked for saying, “Congratulations” to me when he saw a big table of cakes I had made. But should he not have congratulated himself – he’s the one who gets to eat the cookies!?

*For those times when there is nothing to be but negativ(e)…

The Changing Workscape: The Upsides of Remote Work

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When asked whether the company has meetings, he replied: “Has anyone ever said ‘I wish I could go to more meetings today’?” – President of Automattic and co-founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg

While for me, there are no downsides to remote work, I can understand employers’ resistance and arguments against it. It’s new territory for most of them, so it’s easy to throw out a bunch of ill-considered objections: “if I can’t see or monitor my employees at their desk, I don’t know what they are doing” (which essentially means they do not trust their employees anyway and need to rethink staffing or their tendency to micromanage); “we need to work face-to-face to inspire creativity and innovation” (this may be true some of the time but is no reason to eliminate remote work); “we’re afraid productivity will suffer” (most studies conclude the opposite), etc. It comes down to a need for control.

Discussing the backwardness of the move away from remote work (in reference to Yahoo!’s hotly debated 2013 decision to forbid distance work), Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media, stated in a Forbes article by Jenna Goudreau (“Back to the Stone Age?” – sure feels like it!), “It comes from fear. Fear that if I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re working on. It’s a distrust of your own workforce.”

The trick perhaps is both in making policy and accompanying attitude changes toward distance work – and finding a balanced approach to distance work. As Wharton research shows as part of its Work/Life Integration Project, there is no ideal “one-size-fits-all” way to do distance work. But offering the possibility means that a company has more tools to tackle all the challenges they face in attracting and keeping the right staff for its needs.

Objections be damned. Speaking from firsthand experience, I have benefited from the flexibility, increased productivity and benefits of focus, a better balance with work and home life and a much stronger sense of being trusted and valued in the company I was a part of. Likewise, it was true that I felt healthier, happier and almost felt as though things like vacation or sick leave mattered less; that is, while we do need time off, the ability to stay at home and structure my time and projects my own way (as long as I met deadlines and expectations) made all my time feel like my own. The comfort of staying at home also meant I was better rested, lost the misery of commuting and was just in the perfect spot for personal contentment and professional achievement. (Some arguments employees have against remote work, though, include the opposite – that professional achievement and advancement can be more challenging as a remote worker because you’re kind of “out of sight, out of mind” – you have to make extra effort to be noticed.)

The upsides are myriad for those employers who will embrace and allow distance work, not dissimilar to things I list as benefits in my personal views on distance work and telecommuting.

Increasing productivity & time savings
With more actual time for working (less time commuting or just sitting around talking – or being disrupted/interrupted in the office), productivity increases. A professor of management from UCLA, David Lewin, mentioned in the same Forbes article that a number of studies show that telecommuting correlates with higher productivity levels.

Boosting focus & eliminating interruptions
Improved focus is a key aspect of working at home that ties directly to improved productivity. Working in an office environment inevitably leads to a number of interruptions, and interruptions have a real cost. It takes time to focus, and every interruption disrupts that focus. Among other studies, University of California at Irvine research indicates that it takes up to 23 minutes to regain that same focus level. It only takes three “little interruptions” then to waste more than a hour of each day! It’s possible to make office rules, which we’ve tried at my office, to reduce these kinds of interruptions, but the truth is – in the destructive open landscape office environment that most companies seem to favor these days, no-interruption policies can never really be enforced. With people walking in, out and through all day long, someone saying, “Do you have a minute?” is enough to derail serious, hard-won concentration (I am a writer, and I need this!) But even the people in the big open room talking to each other – not to you – is more than enough to do the damage. All of these factors lead to the sense of not having enough time to do what needs to get done, which creates considerable anxiety and stress.

Building the dream team
A company can pick the cream of the crop if they are flexible enough to choose employment talent from anywhere. Not restricting a search to the local search area or requiring the right team members to uproot and relocate, a team can be comprised of the best in the world, not just the best in the local commuting area.

Retaining the best – creating loyalty – improving satisfaction
Showing employees that they are trusted and valued and giving them the flexibility to do their jobs creates goodwill and a sense of loyalty. A 2011 WorldatWork study found that “Organizations that have a stronger culture of flexibility also have a lower voluntary turnover rate. In addition, a majority of employers report a positive impact on employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement.”

Fostering corporate agility
Real savings can be achieved by reducing onsite workforce – that is, major real estate and other overhead and infrastructural expenses. With these savings, a company can have a lot more agility and freedom to operate more flexibly and manage expenses. By selecting best-in-class staff wherever they happen to be, a company may be able to take advantage of time zone differences (these are not always a drawback). Sometimes with a distributed staff, a company has staff closer to its customers who can handle those relationships more effectively than from a centralized location much further away.

Another aspect of this kind of agility is the ability to streamline activities. In companies that are really meeting-heavy, where people struggle to get their actual work done, because the tendency is to schedule extraneous and sometimes unnecessary meetings, a remote workforce has to adapt. It’s not that they will not continue to have meetings, but the number and scope of meetings can be pared down to what is needed rather than just what is convenient to have.

In my current company, there is not just meeting overkill but there used to be two annual marketing meetings to which all employees traveled. (And there is a lot of absolutely cost-ineffective travel taking place still). Finally the company decided to embrace the concept of a webinar to deliver this twice-yearly information to all the local markets. While the company is still firmly committed to an overabundance of in-person meetings, at least the step toward using technology to make up for cost cutting measures moved us in the right direction.

Work-life balance & health
I don’t have the hard and fast numbers on me, but it makes sense that people who want to work at home achieve a better work-life balance, which contributes to greater job satisfaction and to life satisfaction overall.

Companies should move away from self-destructive, factory models of work where people are rewarded for arriving early and staying late.” – Matt Mullenweg, Automattic/WordPress

The Changing Workscape: The Future I Thought Would Be Remote

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When I first moved to Iceland at the dawn of the 2000s, the only job I could find was one that did not have an actual office. All the employees worked from home and on occasion, if needed, went to clients’ offices. Even after I briefly moved to Seattle, I continued this work because the time difference actually worked to our advantage (end of European business day meant an easy handover to me on the Pacific coast – and I would have something ready by the next European morning). With all the benefits and convenience technology enabled, this kind of work was easy. I couldn’t be blamed for thinking that this way of working would become commonplace, adopted everywhere, within a decade or so. Sure, some kinds of work are not suited for distance work – but many are obvious fits (like content development, writing, programming, etc.). Even some fields that are less obvious, with some adaptation, can also be good fits for part-time remote work because they force companies and employees to learn flexibility and to work in different ways.

Today I work in the most staid, traditional environment I have ever worked in, and it’s quite suffocating for those reasons. The idea is hammered into our heads – daily – that we need to embrace innovation and new ways of working into every single aspect of our work. A lot of lip service is paid to “changing how we work” but where is the evidence of this?

An article about remote work and corporate staffing cited a Genesis Research Associates study that states 76 percent of respondents to a survey within more than 7,000 companies plan remote hiring as part of their long-term staffing strategies (as opposed to short-term, temporary solutions). If this is so, who are these companies and where is the actual evidence of this?

To me, the obvious move would be to restructure our thinking about being in an office, spending too much time in meetings and not trying to find more streamlined ways to do these things and thus save time. I have looked at my own job and realize that I could do 90 percent of it from home. There are some meetings and some discussions that are valuable to have face to face, but I am finding that the insistence on meeting face to face is more about laziness, i.e. people can just explain in a half-assed way what they want, and I will get it. If I am outside the office, they could do that in a phone call, but the better thing to do – since we always talk about this as well – is to enforce a policy that if you are going to ask for content creation, you need to know in detail what you are asking for… so people need to write a complete brief outlining their requirements. I don’t need to sit in meetings for that (unless I am actually contributing to the development of the brief itself).

My point is – in 15 years, I have basically traveled backwards. I have much less freedom and far more micromanaging/expectation that I be seen at my desk than ever before. In terms of how I envisioned the future of work, this is not it. And I find myself asking every day: WHY?

No article in 2013 dealt with the issue of remote work and working from home without mentioning Yahoo!’s CEO Marissa Mayer and her controversial decision to forbid working at home. Some companies followed suit, others came out explaining why they allow either part- or full-time work (some companies are mostly virtual and always have been).

Mayer justified her decision in a variety of ways, stating, “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

Plenty of tech companies have criticized this all-or-nothing hardline approach. Banning telecommuting entirely seems short-sighted and totally inflexible, particularly to backpedal when it has been something that employees had an option to do in the past. It’s possible that creativity and innovation come from working together, but anyone who ever works in roles that require concentration and focus will probably agree that being able to work from home and tune out all the extraneous noise is priceless.

None of this is to say that enterprising individuals don’t have quite a lot of options available to them – some online platforms have sprung up and are quite successful at bringing together work, demand for talent/labor and technology. Elance and oDesk (which recently merged) are good examples of this – on-demand talent, a marketplace allowing people to bid on jobs and work flexibly. But you’ve got to be on your game and monitoring what’s available all the time, which is fine if you’re relying solely on this. But if you are not actively using Elance all the time, it’s not like you are building up a profile that future employers can look to.

The point of this is just to say – you could always find clients willing to do freelance, distance arrangements because it’s cheaper – no salary or benefits, no equipment, no office space – really nothing except a one-off payment and maybe a bit of their time to educate you about their expectations and deliverables.

Finding a full-time, regular job at a regular company that operates as flexibly is a different matter. But why? What is holding everyone back?

The future of work, which I thought would be remote, is remote – in that it feels like it is never going to happen.