On working remotely

Yesterday, Yahoo! internally announced a new policy: no more remote workers.


Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration. Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.


Leaked Yahoo! email published by AllThingsD

This new policy is shockingly shortsighted, and is a significant step backwards for Yahoo!.

I worked remotely for Yahoo! for over three years, and I currently work remotely for SmugMug. During my time at Yahoo!, many of my most brilliant, passionate, and productive coworkers also worked remotely. Some of them are still there, and they’ll be affected by this policy.

The shocking thing about this policy is not that Yahoo!’s management thinks employees will be more productive, communicative, or creative if they work together in an office. In many cases, this is true. What’s shocking is that they seem to think this will be true in all cases.

It won’t, and I’d like to explain why.

Some people can’t work remotely

First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: not all jobs can be done remotely, and not all people are good remote workers.

My experience working remotely has been as an engineer. At times my job has involved close collaboration with many people — sometimes as a team lead — and at other times my role has been as a self-directed individual contributor. The latter is much easier to do remotely, while the former required a great deal of attention and care both on my part and on the part of my coworkers.

In general, I would not recommend trying to lead a team or manage a highly collaborative project as a remote worker. It’s possible, but it’s hard, not just for you but for the team.

Working remotely as an individual contributor has its own set of challenges, and still requires significant discipline, self direction, and communication.

I’ve known brilliant engineers who were terrible and unreliable remote workers because they were undisciplined or didn’t communicate effectively when not in an office setting. It’s virtually impossible to know whether someone will be a good remote worker until you try them.

Some people, when left to their own devices, lack the discipline to stay on task. Absent supervision and the physical presence of coworkers, they relax — consciously or unconsciously — and get less done.

They may justify it to themselves (“I got a lot done yesterday! I deserve a day off.”), or they may encounter an obstacle and use their remoteness as an excuse to procrastinate (“Crap, Sara’s the only one who knows how this code works and she’s not online right now…”), or they may simply be lazy.

I suspect this is one of the reasons behind Yahoo!’s policy shift. It’s notoriously difficult to fire someone at Yahoo!, and for that matter at many large companies. If you hire a remote worker and it later turns out they’re not cutting it, the best you can hope for is to require them to work from the office or try to get them transferred somewhere else in the company so they’ll be someone else’s problem.

Remote workers are more of a risk than non-remote workers, and you’ve got to be willing to let them go if things don’t work out.

Some people are much more effective remotely

Some people, when left to their own devices, become unstoppable forces of productivity.

I’m one of those people. Dav Glass is one of those people. So are Luke Smith, Eric Ferraiuolo, and others I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years. The four of us all worked remotely for Yahoo! (Dav and Eric still do), and would occasionally take trips to the office.

We all found it virtually impossible to get anything done during our time on site. The difference in productivity was staggering, to the point where I ended up doing my best to finish as much work as possible before a trip so I wouldn’t fall behind while spending a week at the office dealing with constant interruptions and distractions.

Not everyone is like this. Some people thrive on face to face interactions and random hallway chats, and can handle frequent interruptions. The four of us, and many other remote workers like us, thrive on long stretches of quiet time alone, with limited interruptions.

But, most importantly, we have the discipline to stay on task, get our work done, and communicate frequently and effectively with our coworkers even though they aren’t physically present.

It’s about people, not locations

People are different. Jobs are different. Remote doesn’t work for everyone, but the office doesn’t work for everyone either. Some companies understand this and some don’t.

There was a time when Yahoo! seemed to understand this. They didn’t let just anyone work remotely, but they didn’t prohibit everyone from working remotely either. They understood that on a case by case basis, some people, in some jobs, could be excellent remote workers.

Telling effective and responsible remote workers that they can no longer work remotely — not because they’re bad at it, but because some other people might be bad at it — will only make those people less effective at their jobs.

Or it’ll make them leave and find better jobs at companies that see them as people with unique strengths and weaknesses rather than as homogeneous cogs in a corporate machine.