The shoe drops
By now it's safe to say many people inside and outside the realm of technology have heard of Yahoo's controversial decision to stop allowing employees to work remotely and require them to come into a physical office. The order came down from Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer and employees were told by the HR head that "speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home...we need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together." This move has been generally condemned and has spawned concern that large companies might follow suit. Best Buy has partially hopped on the bandwagon and is ending its flexible work program, in favor of "having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business."
We could argue this is the last gasp of struggling companies perceived by many as slouching their way towards irrelevance, or that Yahoo employees abusing the work from home policy needed a good wake-up call to get motivated. It's also been speculated that this move will only cause the "best and brightest" among these employees to find jobs elsewhere - or that this is a cynical ploy to get those unwilling to change their work-from-home routine to jump ship, thereby lightening the payrolls. Regardless, the fact remains that policy decisions of this nature - whether good or bad - can echo across corporate culture.
I've known people who have worked from home for years - some who are employed by companies that don't exist in any "brick and mortar" sense. They don't have the choice of going into an office, since there is no physical office to go to. This concept is made possible by technology, of course. I recently watched the 1988 Michael J. Fox film "Bright Lights, Big City," in which Fox plays a journalist working for a magazine. His office consists of a typewriter, bookshelves and a phone - no computer, no tablet, no cell phone, not even an electronic address book. Watching Fox's character making overseas calls to get information from France for an article is both shocking and quaint, given the ease with which Google searches can provide us the data he had to use his rusty French to obtain. And even though this character was literally dealing with the limitations of the past century even THAT was a job he could largely do at home, assuming his magazine offered a good telephone reimbursement policy.
A case study of balance
The purpose of this article is not to marvel about how things have changed in the past 25 years. It's to present a case study on how one can work without being present in the office, and why this is beneficial both to the company and to the employee - so long as productivity is maintained and the employee enjoys a solid work-life balance.
For the purpose of this article I've created a fictitious system administrator named Dan, who works for Qwizards, a Google Apps shop that has a physical location but also offers flexplace work plans. At Qwizards, the goals are what counts and employees are empowered to choose how they reach those goals, whether that means closing sales deals, servicing customers or ensuring the company's users and infrastructure are running smoothly.
QWizards has their email, calendars, contacts, documents, spreadsheets, presentations and most company data stored within Google Apps for collaboration and access. Company employees use Gmail, Google Chat for instant messaging and Google Hangouts for web conferencing. They share calendars and work on documents stored in Google Drive. The physical site has no email or file servers, but runs several VMWare ESX systems which host VMs such as database, monitoring, Linux, VOIP, and Citrix servers for developer access to secure environments. Many developers choose to come into the office since they need high-end workstations provided by the company for their programming projects. Dan comes in about once a week or as needed for anything involving physical hands-on work, such as replacing server drives or troubleshooting dead systems.
7:30 AMDan is shaved, showered and dressed and begins his workday by logging into the workstation in his home office. This PC offers dual monitors, a quad-core CPU, a 64 bit operating system and plenty of memory. He brings up Chrome, logs into Google Apps and checks the QWizards corporate intranet, which is a Google Site that appears similar to the following template shown in Figure A.
Figure AMojo Helpdesk system, which integrates with Google Apps, and resembles the Figure B screenshot.
Dan begins several of the help desk tickets assigned to him including setting up Google Apps accounts for new hires, notifying them via email with details including how to access their accounts and provision their mobile devices, pointing them to several Google Site pages which include new hire orientation guidelines, and following up with the managers involved to ensure all details have been covered and will be passed onto the new employees.
9:12 AMOne of the developers at Dan's company sends him an instant message via Google Chat notifying him there may be an issue with the VOIP phone system at QWizards; outbound calls aren't going through. Dan launches the Chrome Remote Desktop app, which allows him to connect from his local Chrome browser to a Windows system at his company (using a very secure password). (Figure C)
Once logged on, Dan then accesses the administrative console for the phone system. After troubleshooting the issue he finds one of the services on the VOIP machine has hung, and he restarts it. He confirms phone calls are now working by dialing his office number at the company, which he has forwarded to his Android mobile.
10:22 AMDan logs into his team's project work site, (Figure D) another Google Site available under QWizard's Google Apps console.
The VOIP system has been giving them trouble for a bit, so Dan logs the issues he found and then does some research to create tasks involved with permanently resolving the issue. He also updates the project wiki page with resolution steps for the VOIP problem so the rest of his team will be aware of the process if it happens again:
Dan has a dentist appointment in five minutes, so he heads around the corner and checks in with the receptionist. While he's waiting he gets an instant message via Google Talk on his Android smartphone. It's Sue, the manager of one of the new hires he set up earlier that day. The new employee needs their password to log in. Dan calls Sue to provide the password over the phone, and as the new user confirms she's able to access Google Apps he is called in for his teeth cleaning.
Home from the dentist, Dan enjoys lunch with his wife and son, who is back from pre-school. Dan plays a quick round of MarioKart on the Wii with his son, who predictably wins every race.
Dan resumes working, and updates his team calendar with several important items which are taking place that month including new hire scheduling, certification expirations, maintenance contract renewals and vendor visits to the company. The calendar can be viewed by all in his group since they have the necessary rights, but since some of the items include planned employee terminations this is kept confidential from other users.
Dan attends a company meeting via a Google+ Hangout running in Chrome on his computer, which has the Hangout plugin installed. This video conference allows him to see what's happening and to ask questions (Dan is one of nine employees using Hangout for this function; the limit is ten). The hangout is being hosted by the company president, and the topic involves some departmental changes, a status update on how the business is doing, and announcements about new policies. The president is recording this presentation (using the "Enable Hangouts on Air" option when setting up the Hangout) since it will be posted to Youtube for employees who weren't able to attend. Dan had previously used Google's instructions to permit videos longer than 15 minutes (the default length) to be sent to Youtube in this fashion.
Dan answers emails and works on support tickets involving missing emails and calendar sharing problems. He updates team spreadsheets shared with his group to reflect the maintenance renewals for the ESX systems running at the office. He connects to a user's system via the Chrome Remote Desktop app to look at some performance problems and fixes those so she can perform her work.
Dan is able to meet his older son as he gets off the bus at the corner; his wife and younger son have gone to an appointment. They talk about school on the walk back to the house and his son prepares to start his homework.
Back on duty, Dan gets on a personal web conference via Google+ Hangout; to discuss the VOIP system problems with his boss, Carter. Carter can share his screen easily with Dan so they can both review the project worksite and project wiki pages devoted to these issues. Dan and Carter are able to use shared notes and a shared sketchpad function to diagram out ideas and resolution strategies, and these are saved to Carter's Google Drive where they can be accessed or shared later.
One of the VPs, Barbara, calls Dan with a problem accessing her Google Apps account on her Nexus tablet. Barbara also works from home and they troubleshoot the problem and determine it's an issue with the wireless router at Barbara's house. She will contact her ISP and use a portable mi-fi which the company provides to executives as a backup solution if their primary internet connection fails. Since the company is largely cloud-based and provisioned to work remotely, ensuring web access for employees is a critical strategy.
Dan is asked to create several Google Sites for team projects among the developer community at QWizards, and he sets these up with the appropriate owners and permissions. His next task is to create several virtual machines on the company ESX servers which he does by connecting remotely to the Windows administrative system at the office, as before. He then documents the new servers in the appropriate spreadsheets and project pages, ensuring that these are shared with the developers involved so they are aware of the processor and memory specifications as well as software versions. To do this he sends a message via Google Chat to alert the project owner and provides the relevant links.
Dan calls it quits for the day. He's put in over nine hours for work and yet still attended his dentist appointment, spent time with his family, got his son off the bus and skipped a long and grueling commute (which also saved him a few bucks in gas and maintenance on his car). He leaves his computer room and sits down at the dinner table with his family. After his kids go to bed he'll go to the gym to make sure he gets some exercise after being home most of the day. He'll also socialize with friends later in the week so that he's not hibernating in his computer room and only emerging for meals and quick errands. Dan might check work email sporadically in the evening, but he maintains a good work-life balance and ensures that when he's done working from home he's on the family clock, not hovering between the two worlds.
Sure, there will be some days when Dan might be home sick and yet still trying to do his job remotely, albeit at a reduced level of productivity. There are also those days when people in the office slack off because it's the day after Superbowl Sunday, or the Friday before a long weekend. Wise employers know that giving a little free rein to employees - whether working locally or remotely - and keeping their eyes on the big picture will be a win-win for all, so long as the business goals are met and the employee feels fulfilled in their work and home lives.
Dan's work from home gig sounds easy, but there are a few stipulations and requirements which QWizards had to fulfill to get to that point:
- Setting up the Google Apps service, employee accounts, and associated mailboxes/project and wiki sites/groups/permissions settings
- Training for employees
- Work-from-home policies for staff with a clear understanding between workers and management about expectations and deliverables
- A reliable and fast workstation/tablet/mobile device for employees
- Internet access with a backup option for key personnel
- Video camera/microphone/speakers for remote workers to use for conferencing
- Setup of the Chrome browser on all associated devices for best results with Google Apps
- Installation of the Hangout plugin on all Chrome browsers
- The Chrome Remote Desktop app installed on source and destination browsers (where applicable)
- In order to post company videos longer than 15 minutes to Youtube, QWizards followed Google's instructions
Also, dual monitors for home or work systems are a great addition for optimized productivity. I've used these for years and can't do my job - or enjoy my recreational time - without them.
As you can see, Dan got through the day without using a company VPN. He didn't need an in-house server for email or mobile devices, nor to deal with file shares, low server disk space, installing new physical servers or other outdated challenges. Moving the bulk of the company's end user operations to the cloud didn't eliminate Dan's job, but just changed the way he carried it out. This is a perfect example of the flexibility of systems, as well as the roles and personnel involved. Employees and managers both have to conduct honest assessments of daily, weekly, monthly, and annual goals to make this work.
There are things to avoid for this scenario to succeed for all parties:
Personnel who have too many distractions while working remotely should be encouraged to recognize this and to do so only on a limited basis.
A work-from-home opportunity shouldn't be seen as a chance to wear pajamas and play video games while keeping an ear out for the "new mail" notification. If the deliverables aren't met, the situation needs to change immediately. Employees must be made aware of this up front.
Employees who would best interface with customers or other individuals on a face-to-face basis should do so in a physical capacity wherever possible. Supporting users or having a discussion with the boss via web conferencing is fine, but when establishing relationships with potential clients a handshake and a sit-down chat are always the best option.
Human Resources should remind employees to set boundaries so they don't lose sight of the balance between work and home life if operating remotely. It doesn't do the worker or the company any good if employees forget to "punch out" and take a break while conducting business at home to the point of burnout.
Remote employees need to make the practice of building and retaining strong working relationships a key priority. Emails and IMs will get the job done on a bare bones minimum, but taking time to connect with coworkers on a social basis is crucial to performing as vital staff members.
I believe within the next 10 years remote work opportunities will be as common, if not more so, than traditional office environments. The trifecta of technology, mindset, and motivation can help employees and businesses succeed in this arena. Yahoo has a point when they state that employee face time is the key to productivity, but it's just one ingredient in a mixture that depends on the companies and people involved. In the end, success is defined by the goals set for workers, and how they are measured and achieved. The right attitude of flexibility and productivity to help formulate, promote, and support those goals will define the future regardless of what company is behind them.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.