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.…

Avoiding the medium-sized stuff

I don’t really post links on this blog these days, but once-in-a-while an article comes along that I feels deserve more attention than a quick link on Twitter.

Connor Tomas O’Brien write an enlightening post about avoiding medium-sized stuff:

The small stuff is okay, too. Tweets and Instagram photos and Vine clips – stuff that’s easy to create and easy to digest. The small stuff can stay. The small-scale stuff is fun.

The medium-sized stuff: projects that don’t really mean that much to me, but that take more than a trivial amount of effort to get finished. Recently, I’ve been taking on a lot of projects with timeframes measured in days or weeks. That’s not long enough to do anything very interesting. These projects are not horrible to work on, but, were I to pan out and see my life on the scale of years or decades, I realise it’s these particular projects that I’ll end up forgetting, these particular projects that will lead me to wonder, “Hey, what did I actually do over this year and that?”

Big projects are scary. It’s much more tempting to take on a bunch of medium-sized projects than one huge project, because in doing so you mitigate the chance of failure. But it’s the stuff that could fail that’s the stuff we remember, not the stuff that’s safe.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently and I’m thankful to Connor for giving this thought a shape and meaning.…

The free work dilemma

Like everyone else, this year I’ve had some fun projects, some challenging, and of course some disappointments. But it’s an interesting exercise to analyse the different types of projects against how they came about, who you worked with, and how financially fruitful they were.

One segment of projects that stand out—for the wrong reasons—were the projects I did for free.

I rarely do work for free but sometimes interesting propositions come along for projects I’d like to do for people that I think will turn out into a good portfolio pieces, or would yield fantastic connections that will bear fruit.

It’s surprising when I look at the outcome of my recent free projects, which have yielded no new business, connections, or tangible benefits. This is in stark contrast to all the work that I have done for myself, be it entire websites or individual blog posts, all of which have all yielded interesting opportunities.

Opportunity cost is tricky to recognize and grasp especially given the fairly amorphous nature of what we do. But before you commit to any favors—however exciting they might seem—I would urge you to consider how else you could spend that same time investing in yourself or your business. You might find that the playful mashup you develop in the same time you planned for the freebie might hit the front page of Hacker News, or that the mock redesign of a website might hit the front page of Behance.

Better for everyone involved is to barter. If the person asking you to develop their site is an incredible designer, decide up-front how much work is required and then ask them to dedicate the same time or equivalent to design your new identity. Or if they are well connected in an industry you want to move into, ask to arrange meetings and introductions up-front. It helps balance the professional relationship and then you don’t have to call the work you did, “free”. (And to this point, make sure you enforce the agreement: I’ve been in situations where the other side of the bargain never materialized since they were too busy to reciprocate.)

Taking equity is an entirely different, more complex conversation that I’ll leave to the experts to discuss. But before you even consider this route you need to believe in the project, the other people behind it, the potential for profitability, and stick to it for the long-term. It’d take a lot for me to seriously entertain taking equity in most startup ideas I hear about.

When I started on my own I did a lot of work for free. After most of it, when the valuable contacts or follow-up work didn’t materialize I regret not spending that time on my own projects; honoring them with more care and attention that they deserved. Your own, carefully considered side-projects make for a much more interesting portfolio piece or talking-point than a quick unpaid job you probably had to rush. Investing your time in yourself before offering your services to other for free ultimately yields more dividends than freebies that risk disappointment.…