Yahoo is a curious poster child for banning remote work, as they’re not a company that’s doing very well. Yet Google has strict policies against it too, as the recent post by famous programmer Tim Bray explained:
As of March 17th I’ll be an ex-employee. It’s an amicable separation in the face of irreconcilable differences: I wouldn’t move to California and Google wouldn’t open a Vancouver office. I haven’t decided what to do next.
Seriously, about remote work? · Yep. Both before and after being hired, I had been asked to consider moving south. I didn’t want to and politely declined. Eventually, the group I’m in politely informed me that staying remote wasn’t an option. I talked to a couple of other groups but my heart wasn’t really in it, because I decided Google’s position was correct.
It’s one thing if an employee is underperforming. It’s quite another to not let a high performing employee try an alternative way to work. That’s one of the big lessons from The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com & The Future of Work (See FAQ).
If a good employee asks to try remote work, or any choice about work habits they believe will help them perform well, why wouldn’t a manager let them do it on a trial basis? There’s very little risk. If it turns out to be disruptive to the team, or their performance is poor, that’s one thing as there would be an actual problem. But why not allow the employee to try? Allowing employees to try encourages them to look for better ways to work, an asset to any organization. Policies that are outright bans of anything rarely make sense as they prevents employees and managers from experimenting and evaluating actual results. Bans end thinking as people stop thinking for themselves and simply carry out a policy, the birth of bureaucracy.
Bray himself felt he would have performed better if he moved, which he was unwilling to do:
I would have been more effective in my job if I’d moved, and probably would have enjoyed the work more
Google’s icy remote work policy is oddly hypocritical as they market Google Hangouts as a solution for people who work from different places around the world. Google itself does have 70 offices in 40 countries and there’s plenty of distributed work happening, just not on a solo basis. They do allow telecommuting for specific, and short term, workers such as ad-raters. According to the NYTimes Google does allow solo remote work on a case by case basis, and their CFO was quoted in the BBC as saying “[we have] as few as possible”, and apparently these exceptions did not apply to Bray.
Of course there is no singular answer to the question of remote work. Google has done an outstanding job of hiring and keeping talent. Yet by failing to frame the work policy restrictions around performance is a mistake against the philosophy at the core of any progressive company.