Howells.

Remote working and corporate culture

I’ve just returned from holiday and quickly caught up on the week’s news, one piece being that new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer has banned remote working.

A great deal of commentators have been up-in-arms about the decision, including David Heinemeier Hansson whose company 37signals is predominantly staffed by remote workers, and who has written a new book extolling the virtues of remote working.

I don’t disagree with any of the points made here: there are incredible up-sides to allowing employees remote working, but most commentators are missing the point that for remote working to be successful, a company’s culture and vision has to be extremely clear and more importantly, shared by every employee.

If it isn’t, remote working can just become an excuse to slack off or take some free time off work.

Many moons ago I worked at Accenture, which is name-checked in DHH’s article as a stodgy firm that is embracing home working (incidentally, I don’t believe that any Accenture manager would ever condone home-working; it’ll just be a HR blurb written in their corporate literature). I—and almost exclusively all my contempories—disliked working at Accenture. There were no shared values, and nobody respected whatever vestige they had of a unified corporate vision. The culture was one of work hard, and then work a bit harder (all the while spending your time away from home on the road), so when we “worked from home” (complete with the sarcastic finger quotes), we didn’t.

I’m not ashamed to say I didn’t do anything productive when I worked from home. I checked my email for 10 minutes to check-in and give the impression I was active, but otherwise, it was movie-time in my pyjamas. I simply couldn’t give a damn about Accenture, so given the chance of slacking off for a day, why would I do any work? (Yes I know that is an unprofessional attitude, but I was younger then.)

I would bet that this is exactly the sort of culture at Yahoo! right now.

Mayer taking over the helm is a great move and I’m sure plenty are buoyed by her being there. But if my experience at a company as stodgy as Yahoo! is anything to go by, I’d guess that the majority of the people who are remote working at Yahoo! don’t give a damn about the company either, and are slacking big time. Indeed, the data reportedly seems to suggest they are.

It takes a long time for a strong corporate culture to form unless it’s baked-in from the outset like at 37signals and Github (another company that works extremely well using a remote workforce), and a company as battle-worn as Yahoo! will take a long time for it to heal. Only when it rebuilds and strengthens their culture so that people feel great about being there again will they be able to deploy a remote workforce who are motivated and self-disciplined enough to care.