Flexible Work Can Revolutionize Your Company (If You Do it Right)

Why is Yahoo now requiring all its employees -- even those who were hired with the understanding that they could work from home -- to report to an office beginning in June? Is working from home a bad policy?
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woman with a laptop working from home smiling
woman with a laptop working from home smiling

I'll come right out and say it: It is Tuesday at 9:07 am and I am blogging from home.

In fact, my entire team is working from home, like we do every Tuesday.

It's a team I would not be on, were it not for our company's profound respect for the freedom to work from wherever we want, as long as we get results. What we care about is incredible people who forge ahead to deliver exceptional work, not bodies in seats at a set time and place.

My last full-time job was at Amazon.com, where I oversaw the marketing department. Leaving that company -- brimming with creative, brilliant colleagues who were changing the world -- was the hardest thing I ever did in my career. But I could not reconcile my long hours away from my young son and daughter. For too many evenings, we were an incomplete family. They ate dinner with their Dad while the fourth place at the table remained empty. As they uncovered the world, they had thoughts, stories and discoveries they eagerly wanted to share with me. But I wasn't there.

And so I left Amazon.com in 2000 and we returned to California. I found fulfilling part-time opportunities that let me contribute meaningful work while taking that fourth place at the dinner table in the evenings.

I joined oDesk after working part-time for so long that I believed I would never again join a company full-time. I even violated a second personal tenet: My firm line on distance, in which I would commute no further than San Francisco. Located in Redwood City, oDesk's offices are about three times further than I had promised myself I would go.

Why did I break all my rules about work-life balance and commuting distance?

Because at oDesk, we are genuinely measured by the quality of our results, not the hours we spend in the office.

So why is Yahoo now requiring all its employees -- even those who were hired with the understanding that they could work from home -- to report to an office beginning in June? Is working from home a bad policy? Or is it time to rethink and articulate how we attract, empower and manage talent when it is remote some or all of the time?

Here are my favorite tips on managing non-traditional teams:

1) Think expansively about talent and you'll get more of it
Two of my very best hires over the years included two working moms. We accommodated shorter in-office hours and they both made a measurable and lasting impact on our business at the time. One is now is senior vice president of marketing at a publicly traded company and the other is president of a thriving business.

Here at oDesk, we recently hired an insanely talented man; the kind of talent that could come in very handy to help turn around a company like Yahoo. We hired him despite the fact that he can only be in the office three days per week. Should we have been rigid about when and where he works?

2) Measure managers by how they manage their entire team
Does this sound obvious? Apparently, it wasn't happening at Yahoo, so let's be explicit about it. Being a manager is hard work. A good manager embraces every employee, regardless of the person's work hours or location. If you have too many direct reports to ensure each is delivering results, it is time to layer your organization. Everyone deserves a manager who can pay attention.

3) Develop crisp, written objectives and milestones
Make sure everyone on your team, remote or local, understands what s/he need to accomplish, when it is due and how s/he will be measured. Put it in writing. It forces you to be crisp and removes any doubt as to what is expected.

4) Check in frequently

As a manager, it is your job to constantly ask yourself: Is each of my direct reports motivated, well-matched to their assignments and making an impact? Are there any roadblocks I need to help remove? Make sure you have at last one scheduled check-in per week, with a written status report that reports on accomplishments, objectives for the next week and any critical milestones or red flags.

And if an employee has a question drop whatever you are doing and answer. This is because leverage comes through a well-functioning team. People waiting on an answer are often doing just that: waiting instead of working.

5) Equip yourself to manage remotely
At oDesk, we are avid users of collaboration technologies including Skype, Dropbox and Google Docs. Each conference room is equipped with large monitors so we can integrate remote employees into meetings via Skype or Google hangouts.

6) Develop a culture that values all members of your virtual team
We have evolved a subtle etiquette that makes all the difference. We greet team members who enter the meeting on Skype or Google hangouts as warmly as we greet people in the room. If a remote person wishes to speak, they are given priority. Any supporting documents are shared in advance so everyone can follow.

Are we perfect? Of course not. But we have a company of 120 employees and 250 contractors who work for oDesk from around the world. We have a flexible, passionate and hardworking culture and one that drew me back into full-time work when I never thought it possible.

A final note: I intended to write this blog post yesterday. However, I was in the office and couldn't find a quiet, uninterrupted block of time until today: work-from-home Tuesday. What do you think about the debate caused by Yahoo's move and policies around where people should work?

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