A human is not a spreadsheet

March 12, 2013

4 minute read

Relationships are the essence of everything we do, whether at home in our personal interactions with family and friends, or at work in our contact with customers and co-workers.  

Can you have functional relationships with people you’ve never met face to face?
I know the answer is yes.

Recently the CEO of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer, announced that her company would no longer allow employees to work remotely. In most articles I’ve read it is widely assumed that Ms. Mayer checked the data on the number of employee logins to the Yahoo! VPN (the digital tunnel to its intranet) and found that most remote employees were not logging in enough. From that she surmised they were not working hard enough and this was causing morale issues at the company.

I’d be surprised if this was all of the data that Ms. Mayer pulled to check on her employees who work from home. After all, employees have set objectives and goals to achieve, established at the beginning of a fiscal year, and then reviewed (hopefully with bonuses attached to success). Employees who work from home need to provide results according to the objectives set by their managers.

From a technical perspective VPN users could log on and then walk away from their computers, so this is a poor method of tracking employee productivity. If there is no management process to track the goals of those employees, just having them show up at the office is not going to resolve that.

Is it possible that a call to have all Yahoo! employees be local to HQ now is not about Yahoo’s work from home policy at all?

When you’re about to implement an unpopular downsizing decision it is easy to deflect by making that decision appear as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It has been referred to as a layoff that’s not a layoff – telecommuting employees who don’t want to return to the office or who have moved far enough away to make their physical commutes not economically viable, can seek jobs elsewhere.

Related is the recent decision by Best Buy – another company in difficulty – to end its implementation of ROWE (Results Only Work Environment). The flex program launched in 2005 went from being touted as “demolishing business dogma that equates physical presence with productivity” to being “fundamentally flawed.” Flex time went from being universally implemented to needing manager approval. I’m still not sure how those employees now required to work in the office during regular hours will be monitored differently from those who are on flex.

Recently I entered an office environment after having worked from home for 13 years. I formed long term relationships during those years, with both co-workers and customers who lived miles away and across international borders. I did this by talking with them, sometimes multiple times per day. I didn’t use the company VPN to do it. I  rarely got a chance to meet with them face-to-face. Yet I achieved results.

Yahoo! and Best Buy are global companies with many offices around the world. Employees of both already interact remotely with each other and with their customers via telecommunication; I expect successfully.

It’s possible to provide such great service and support to internal and external customers that they know you by your voice, your name, your email signature, and by what you accomplish for them every day.

For Marissa Mayer I only have this to say— how you respond to people is what makes you successful. Not how long you log onto a network. The two things are mutually exclusive.

A CEO at a company I worked for once asked me an interesting question: “If I paid you a million dollars a year, but every single day I walked into your office and called you an idiot, what kind of job would you do for me?”

At the time I thought, “Wow, a million dollars a year!” But through experience I found out that he was right. If you treat people as though they’re not capable it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, no matter how much you pay them.

Employees and employers everywhere watch this recent decision with interest. It requires more thought and understanding than simply believing that working remotely is bad because one large tech company said so.

Consider how relationships grow and are nourished. I sincerely hope that going back to 1950s policy isn’t the answer. I find it unfair to cast such a black shadow over telecommuting, when the issue at hand is really proper management relations with employees. Will Yahoo! and Best Buy also require their customers to come into their offices?

At Adlib we often speak with our customers only via the phone or email and yet we have some of the happiest customers anywhere. Again, it’s the results that matter.

I could also go on for another paragraph or two about the colds and flu that are picked up while working in an office. Statistics Canada says the average Canadian loses 7.7 work days per year due to illness. But that’s a completely different blog post.

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