The changing workscape: Remote work less remote

Standard

I have been writing about remote work possibilities and up- and downsides of virtual workforces for ages. I consider myself a bit of a remote-work activist (at least on my own behalf) and definitely an advocate. Having worked mostly in the tech world – and also owning my own communications shop, which is a 24/7 home office situation – it always seemed reasonable, normal and logical that remote work would become the norm rather than the exception by now.

But it really hasn’t. People cite a lot of arguments against virtual work, and in some jobs and industries it is not necessarily as easy to do as many tech-oriented jobs.

I recently read a blog post on the upsides (and handful of challenges) of remote work from a relatively new employee of the all-remote company 10up. The writer makes great points about flexibility and being able to count all those “working nights” hours as work time, and choosing to work when you are most productive and feeling your best. (He cites time zone differences as the biggest challenge; I agree and would add the “perception problem” to the equation. In an all-remote or tech-friendly company, this might not figure in, but in traditional companies that allow remote work in an ad hoc fashion, there are internal perceptions and personal opinions that come into play. The “remote” workers are actually remote. They are seen as less committed or engaged, not as readily promotable, etc.)

He also makes another extremely valid point that is also an essential policy issue that touches on economic competition and the mobility of workers. In the US in particular (although the US is not alone in its restrictive policies), immigration policies are keeping a lot of highly skilled workers from relocating to accept roles that would contribute to the success and growth of American companies. Remote work is one innovative way for companies to take advantage of a global pool of skills – in and of itself, this is not a surprise or new. But I had never really given this a great deal of thought from a policy-oriented perspective.

As much as we workers might like to migrate, with remote work, not only do we not have to be tied to a desk in one place, we don’t necessarily have to limit our job searches to places we are legally allowed to work. It’s a huge hindrance – both for employers and potential employees – and a bureaucratic nightmare for all involved. Happily, we are moving (slowly) toward a world in which remote work is less remote.

The changing workscape: Women, self-awe and flex(ed) work and muscles…

Standard

The other day, in the haze of being a bit too tired to censor myself and my own moment of self-congratulations, I told someone that I am actually “in awe of myself”. Mostly this is because I felt in awe of the copious amounts of work I was able to complete all at once and my general ability to produce prolifically without a huge effort. I was almost immediately embarrassed about saying something so arrogant, even if it really was an expression of surprise at how much I had done (and can do) more than it was a boastful statement.

But then I thought – why shouldn’t I be in awe of myself? Why shouldn’t we all be in awe of ourselves – or strive to be?

In fact women in particular, finally starting to make progress on finding a work-life balance (supposedly, at least), should start from a place of feeling in awe. Not awestruck as in overwhelmed. But awe as in excitement about all the things that

Being able to “have it all” (which, quite honestly, I know nothing about since I don’t really have it all in the way this expression is generally used) does require a bit of rejiggering and sometimes making choices that no one likes. One way women are starting to be able to “have it all” and do more – and thus feel a more tangible sense of resolve and awe – is by being able to have more flexibility in their work lives. Balance, according to a recent Forbes article, is taking on a clearer shape with remote and virtual work arrangements.

I have written a lot about remote work and allowing for flexibility in the workplace – and I too benefit from negotiating for a bit of flexibility. My own work-life balance has improved – and has actually shaped my ability to be more productive and thus in more in awe. 🙂

The changing workscape: Flex-work options – What if we’re just not doing it right?

Standard

Working in an environment that does not invite or encourage an ethos of working where and how one is most productive, it can be difficult to believe that there are companies with flexibility in their DNA. Leaving the flex nature of the small- to medium-size tech enterprises, it did not seem like it would be that vast a cultural chasm to cross because we’re all working in this fast-paced, tech-driven world, aren’t we?

Truth is – no, we aren’t. Tech companies live and die by the technology. A conservative, traditional company operating in selling commodities does not believe it needs to be on the fast-track to digital change (either in how it does business/sells or in how it works internally). For all the grandiose, pie-in-the-sky talk about embracing technology, change and finding new ways of working, leaving that comfortable zone where one has “always had success” doing business is still how things are plugging along. Fundamentally, there is a disparity between the talk of change and innovation and the walk of eschewing change, putting up obstacles and viewing flexibility with suspicion.

It comes down to communication, on some level – first, a company (whatever its size, business or take on flex work) needs to go beyond lip services regardless of what they want. If they want employees to innovate and work where they feel best or chained to their desks 8 to 5, they need to make that clear in an honest and clear way. And employees need to make their needs known as well. Many companies have flex-work policies on the books, but people are afraid to take advantage, fearing being perceived as “not dedicated to their work”.

But, as a Virgin/YouGov survey predicts, we may be moving close to the almost office-free world in the next 20 years. It would be better and easier to start confronting the challenges and barriers now. Starting with the aforementioned and all-important practice of communication. Can we not shake off the stigma of flexible work and be clear about what “flexible work” means and what employers and employees expect of it?

The partial answer, at least for today, is: We’re not there yet. An apt answer for flex and telework (as well as for relationships in the undefined, “budding” stage!).

As with most things, I could ask whether there is actually a right or wrong way to introduce and undertake some of the flexible work options that are out there. Are we doing it right? No, probably not yet. As stated, we’re not there yet in terms of every company jumping on board looking for options – but we are at a stage that most companies have some of their workforce that could be offered flexible options – and the benefits go both ways.

“Flexible work” could mean a host of different things. Telecommuting, near and dear to my heart, alone has tremendous potential for changing the workscape as we know it today. A couple of ZDNet articles grabbed my attention for their focus on bigger societal benefits (not emphasizing the benefits to the individual or even the economic benefits to the companies taking advantage of remote or virtual work). One article made the point: Working at home is going green. The commute is reduced/eliminated – the environmental impact of that could be huge. Right now there are well over 200 million Americans making a daily commute. The second article discussed how policy-level decisions to support telecommuting would incentivize business growth. In this era of lost jobs and economic uncertainty, it does seem like policy change (especially with regard to making taxation more transparent and easy to handle for small home-based businesses, as an example – or making clear deductions possible for those who work from home offices and forgo the commute) would go a long way toward changing the dialogue and figuring out how to get flexwork going  — the right way and for real.

The changing workscape: Why is virtual work stigmatized while internet dating no longer is?

Standard

Does “flexibility stigma” exist?

Apparently so; it exists when it comes to work.

A similar kind of stigma used to exist when it came to online/internet dating. A CNN article highlights the fact that fewer than one percent of Americans were using the internet to meet dates in 1992 – and by 2009, almost a quarter of couples were meeting online. The Guardian reports, based on a University of Rochester study, that online dating is the second most common way Americans start relationships today.

My guess is the numbers may even be higher than what the CNN article reports; the stigma is virtually gone, but I think people probably still underreport their online-love exploration.

Online dating became broadly experimental, then accepted, and then mainstream. People (almost) proudly talk about how they met on OkCupid or Match.com or whatever the flavor-of-the-month or niche dating site is. The process has moved a lot like the bell curve of technology adoption. Online dating started with innovators and early adopters – I imagine that those who adopted early were tech-oriented people but also possibly the kind of people who would benefit from the barriers and anonymity of online interaction. (Hey, not taking any shots – I am a wee bit techie, a wee bit nerdy and a wee bit shy myself.)  Eventually a wider audience could see the benefits of doing a bit of pre-date vetting, getting to know people a bit better before meeting and being exposed to a broader array of people than one could meet in everyday life – particularly if they are busy people tired of trying to make some kind of connection with drunk people in bars. (Of course that assumes that the other people engaged in online dating are like-minded souls. That’s where the diffusion of innovation curve, in this case, does not work too well, especially in the early stages, in the early adopters’ favor.)

Okay, so online dating is not a panacea that answers all dating ills, and in fact there are some psychologists who claim that there are pitfalls (the aforementioned CNN article makes that clear, citing that online daters may be susceptible to warped outlooks and expectations, relying too much on vague profiles and contributing to a sense that one can be too picky or judgmental.

The Guardian article cited above also explores the idea that people online are looking for different things – and perhaps deceiving each other about it. There are some other great looks at how online dating is unsatisfying and can never really give people an accurate idea of whether they will really click with someone or not. Too true:

“…online dating sites assume that people are easy to describe on searchable attributes.  They think that we’re like digital cameras, that you can describe somebody by their height and weight and political affiliation and so on. But it turns out people are much more like wine.  That when you taste the wine, you could describe it, but it’s not a very useful description.  But you know if you like it or don’t.  And it’s the complexity and the completeness of the experience that tells you if you like a person or not.  And this breaking into attributes turns out not to be very informative.”

Personally, I would also argue about the creation of the illusion of endless choice – related to the point about pickiness and judgment made in the CNN article. People also don’t always know what they want – or need. But that is totally beside the point here. It’s a complex thing, like relationships themselves.

The question is – how has online dating become accepted, acceptable and the de facto thing to do while something totally above-board like online, virtual work isn’t? It’s not like for like and may not be comparable, but I suppose the difference is the line between what is personal and what is professional – and in the professional realm, more is at stake. On the other hand, do people pay a certain price for taking steps (personal or professional) that fall under one of these “stigma umbrellas”? That is, is the online dater somehow limiting herself to just that pool of people willing to be online and to those who can craft a profile that speaks to what she (thinks she) is looking for? Is the person who takes advantage of “workplace flexibility” also being stigmatized at work – not advancing in her career, perhaps – because she has asked or opted for a more flexible arrangement?

The worker seeking flexibility in her own life may in fact be seen by the employer as less flexible and less committed and therefore less “promotable”. While it may seem that women would be disproportionately affected, some studies show that men may be most adversely affected by asking for flexibility. Basically there is a lose-lose for both men and women who aim to work flexibly:

“There can be a stigma for remote or blended schedules, however: parents who want to be more available to their kids may opt for this, and that usually means women. These remote employees may not be as available as someone in the office, may appear to be slacking off, and may reduce their opportunities for promotion. Whether or not those things are true does not matter if there is a perception of truth to them.”

This only covers how some employers see flexible workers – it does not cover the whole concept of flexible work. Flexible work itself, regardless of the person doing it, invites all kinds of stigma about the kinds of workers who want to work at home (or without workspace restrictions) and the quality of work and productivity that can come of it:

“The fact working from home is often less pressured is probably why 19% of those asked, felt home workers take advantage of having no boss around and slack off.

Yet, when you look at the 2.8m home-based entrepreneurs who are running businesses from their kitchen tables and turning over an extra 284bn for the UK economy, you start to recognise that home-workers can be just as productive and even more driven.

Lastly, giving employees the option to work from home can make good business sense in other ways too. It can help a business save money because it means it won’t have to fork out for a huge office and there won’t be as much wear and tear on the office utilities.”

I have had the same questions – how is it, if I have successfully operated my own content business from my home for 15 years, that a corporation who chose to hire me as a regular employee would not be able to value the productivity and experience gained in those 15 office-less years? Imagine this: Microsoft in Finland a National Remote Working Day, asking employers to think about the benefits of remote working, including shorter commute times and further reaching environmental benefits. Events like this are unfortunately rare enough that the idea of virtual work may still be holding businesses back.

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

The changing workscape: Don’t miss the boat on remote

Standard

Even my colleagues are in on it.

My penchant for writing about – and practically agitating for – remote work has even influenced some colleagues. One sent me a link to an article about surprising remote work possibilities and jokingly suggested I may have a future as a remote sports psychologist. Ha!

I don’t know that I got a lot of value from the article – nothing I did not already know. But it reminded me that sometimes the route to work-from-home possibilities is winding and indirect. Considerable creativity and thought can chart the course before you hit smooth sailing waters. Not many jobs are advertised or designed as remote-work friendly – but there is a lot of room in many jobs for negotiation. I recently negotiated for more work-at-home time, which comes none too soon for my sanity, productivity and the horrors of long-distance winter commuting.

And telecommuting makes sense. Another (former) colleague sent me an article about what differences telecommuting may make in the future of transportation and traffic.

“Telecommuting is occurring everywhere in metropolitan areas, from dense cities to their far-flung suburbs. The rise of the Internet is producing more at-home work, but not just, as once believed, by people who want to live far from their workplaces. Many telecommuters are likely only a few miles from their potential offices. What’s happening across the country that may explain these changes?”

One of the best parts of writing on this subject is many acquaintances jumping in and contributing bits of information and evidence. I love it.

Pile on Yahoo! I’ve got my shovel

Standard

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: A Stance on Freelance

Standard

Moving to new country is one way to force yourself to become a freelancer and small business owner. I catapulted myself to a new country once, long ago and far away, and having an in-demand skillset that was only really in demand on limited projects for limited times made me a shoo-in for the feast or famine world of freelancing. The timing made a lot of sense – technology had made possible a lot of the things in this realm – meaning I could keep clients I had cultivated even after I had started to bounce between Iceland and the US and later to other countries.

With services and websites, such as dedicated freelance platforms, oDesk, Elance, Microlancer, Guru, Peopleperhour and even general sites like Craigslist, and a variety of resources, including the Freelancers Union (one of the US’s fastest-growing labor organizations), and online networks, project management tools (like Basecamp, Trello) and blueprints and advice for helping put together a freelance plan, and even shared work spaces and incubator space, becoming a freelancer is easy. At least in theory – the tools are there, but no matter how good the tools, if you don’t have some crucial pieces of the puzzle, success is going to be a tougher thing to find.

A freelancer has to define what success means, which usually entails realizing that you’re doing two jobs – not just the freelance work you’re selling yourself to do – but also marketing and selling yourself, which takes a lot of time. You will network and introduce and offer up samples and shove your foot in all kinds of doors and keep it there even when there’s nothing for you there because there might be someday. Put your finger in a whole lot of pies – most of which you baked yourself to pile the sweet sugar right on in all the schmoozing and convincing you will devote yourself to doing!

In my own experience, freelancing might have been the only, or at least the early, route to success as a foreigner with a specific toolkit and work experience – but freelancing is also a competitive boon for women. Elance statistics show women outpacing men in freelance earnings. Apart from earnings, the online freelance marketplace seems to level the playing field, making merit and skill the most important factors in granting projects – giving women and men equal footing. The online freelance marketplace may not be “the great equalizer of the gender gap in tech” but it is one step in the right direction. All the talk about women struggling to be a part of the workforce, especially after having a family makes freelance options seem and feel like real options. (“As a working single person, I can only put myself in the position of a high-achieving mother frustrated by the options provided by the current work force. I can imagine, though, how frustrating it might be to have time to work but not the time when a traditional job wants me on the clock. I can imagine how frustrating it might be to have the skills and the drive and find the workplace unable to make use of them in the current structure.” Isn’t this the kind of argument I keep making about remote and virtual work?)

Self-employment is challenging, make no mistake. But it’s freeing and provides flexibility where the corporate world doesn’t. Set your own hours, set your own workload, set your own terms, pay and deadlines. And the corporate world actually has a growing need for this “contingent workforce”. It’s sort of win-win if you don’t want the full-time job with its demands and also do not need the benefits of having a full-time job – you and the company get what you want.

It’s all part of the whole changing, shifting palette of the economy. Markets seek to innovate and find ways to utilize talent and resources more effectively. Or maybe that is just the optimistic way to describe it. But, as an article in The Atlantic contends, the “gig economy” is the mainstream economy. The way we work, the jobs we take, our perception of how we will work and live our lives as employees – it is all in flux, in large part because people are starting to work independently and fitting work into their lives rather than fitting their lives into work. The article tells a story that makes the move to freelance sound like a revolution. To some extent, it is. “This transition is nothing less than a revolution. We haven’t seen a shift in the workforce this significant in almost 100 years when we transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Now, employees are leaving the traditional workplace and opting to piece together a professional life on their own. As of 2005, one-third of our workforce participated in this “freelance economy.”” Of course this fails to acknowledge that the people who choose to go into freelance are in a position to choose it. Even if it seems like there are few alternatives (for example, when I chose to move to another country), there are options. Plenty of people in the messed-up economy of the day don’t have the experience, skills, etc. to capitalize on this “revolution”.

I don’t have to be a freelancer anymore, but it is hard to let go of the networks and client relationships. It’s clear that in this kind of economy, you need to be ready for everything.

The changing workscape: Virtual-friendly companies

Standard

You get what you pay for, not what you wait for…

I have belabored the whole Yahoo! putting a stop to telecommuting story and the backlash surrounding it. What’s done is done.

What is more important, which is something I have been meaning to write about, is the companies that have embraced virtual work –either  in part or in some cases, the company is 100 percent remote (such as Automattic, the maker of the well-loved, much-used WordPress platform). This has been on my to-do list, but I happened upon an article from Forbes that highlights the top-100 companies for offering work-from-home options, according to the FlexJobs website. As the article points out, if not going for jobs that are obviously remote (such as work with the aforementioned Automattic or Mozilla, which are reputable companies with very visible virtual-work profiles), it can be challenging to identify companies and jobs that support remote-work possibilities – and jobs that are not just some kind of work-at-home scam to lure unsuspecting, naive dupes down a blind alley.

Of course there are a lot of companies that offer flexible work schedules and remote options without publicizing it – it is more a matter of building a relationship with people inside the company and demonstrating that location has very little to do with the work. Likewise, there is a growing number of sites and services that cater to a freelance workforce, allowing flexibility to both freelancers and companies and individuals who are seeking more project-based help. The best-known among these, oDesk and Elance, recently merged.

But where are the companies that are, if not “loud and proud” about being virtual-work friendly, supportive of the future of and possibilities enabled by a virtual, distributed workforce?

One that I stumbled on in my search is actually quite vocal about its support for taking advantage of the benefits of a distributed workforce. It’s called Lullabot. The Lullabot team is one-hundred-percent remote, and as its own content (an article from the company CEO) states,My feeling is that most conventional co-located companies simply don’t know how to manage, and more importantly, how to include their remote workforce.” These are exactly the kinds of objections I hear again and again – and tend to think it is more a stubbornness and resistance to change the way work is done than any real hindrance to working remotely. It’s like everything else – people don’t like change, and anything new is disruptive. With a company that has been distributed from day one, this change never has to happen.

I should also clarify, as Lullabot has done, that there should be a distinction between “remote” work and “distributed” work – a fully distributed company has no central location (necessarily) from which to be remote. The whole company is distributed.

Further to this distinction, I came across another company, Fuentek, which is, as an NPR article described, not a virtual workforce but an entirely virtual company – which changes the whole mindset. A company founded on the flexibility enabled by a distributed workforce is entirely different from a traditional company trying to implement flexible policies.

That said, some quite traditional employers are moving in the right direction.

Aetna, a massive health-insurance company operating a relatively staid, conservative industry, has embraced the efficiencies of telecommuting. Aetna’s reasoning is pragmatic – they managed to cut real estate and associated costs by about 78 million USD.

A really surprising leader in virtual work growth is the US federal government. (This will not come as any surprise to most, especially if you’ve ever worked for the government.) While it is not true across the board, some government agencies have been more eager to take on telecommuting in a serious way. The groundwork has already been put down to introduce telework across government agencies, but so far the one federal trailblazer has been the US Patent and Trademark Office, which has a dedicated telework coordinator and almost 70 percent of its workforce working remotely at least part time.

Ultimately these moves should not come as any surprise. The evidence shows that virtual work is a win-win. Employers can, like Aetna, attract and retain premium talent while reducing their costs. Employees are more likely to stay, feel trusted and feel a sense of loyalty to the company. Most companies have the technology for enabling virtual offices but the attitudes and institutional support lags behind.

The search for compassion and attributes found in those younger/finding however unaccountable harrowing hate/craving reaction, a hideous terminal hunger/starving for life in a world with so much on its plate” The Chills – “Singing in My Sleep”