The subject of telecommuting and working from home is everywhere. People have viewpoints on both sides of the issue.
Remember all of those headlines created by Marissa Mayer's choice to have Yahoo remote workers return to the office? At the time, the company said that employees working from home have fewer chances to collaborate with co-workers and so they were taking away the privilege. On the flip side, Gallup found that remote workers log an average of four more hours per week than do their counterparts who work on-site.
Adding to the ongoing discussion about work from home are some opinions based on my own experiences and that of a fellow startup CEO who sees the issue from a different perspective. We have our own points of view that fall on either side of the subject.
I have started three companies and can't ever imagine putting a regular work-at-home policy into place. Sure, I encourage people to stay home when they are sick, and when it snows and the roads are unsafe. I understand that sometimes you need an afternoon to pound out a written document or some software code. But, as a general policy, it won't happen as long as I am CEO.
Dave DuPont, CEO of TeamSnap, sits on the other side of this issue. Dave's company has a strong work-at-home culture. Dave believes his employees are more productive because they don't have to commute and get more done each day working from home. It's also largely easier for TeamSnap to hire, as location doesn't matter.
All very logical reasons, and I agree with them, generally--still work at home isn't going to happen in my company. Why?
In my experience, working at home results in overall loss of company progress--not measured at the individual level, but at the company level. It may be true that an individual employee can get more done in solitude, but the company as a whole is more than the sum of the parts, which are the contributions by individuals on a daily basis.
I believe there are three killer reasons not to have a work at home policy.
Startup companies are built on tight-knit communications about product, engineering, marketing, sales, and customer support.
Individual points of view are critical to success and when those points of view are muted by distance and medium of delivery, information gets naturally omitted, miscommunicated, and generally lost. It doesn't matter if you are an introvert or extrovert--when you need to make sure something is communicated correctly, you do it face-to-face.
Mistakes happen often in a startup, fast-moving environment. The key is to make sure people are learning from those mistakes. When people are not in the same place the mistakes still happen, but the learning happens at a slower rate. This can be deadly because if there is one fatal enemy of the startup, it's time. When, people are separated by distance, hard discussions get pushed out, and pretty-soon it's a week later. I've been in meetings where someone was so passionate about an idea that they were reduced to tears. This kind of passion is an accelerant to urgency that just can't be translated digitally.
Startups thrive on the energy of their environment. The energy that results from making things happen. Early in its lifecycle, a company lives from win-to-win. Celebrating those wins is critical to company energy, but also individual energy.
At my current company, we have a big bell on the wall that we ring every time we win a new customer. Each time the bell rings, everyone claps, and for the next 10 minutes people feel good about what the company as a whole has done, and what they have done on an individual level to contribute to that bell ringing. Employees who don't come to the office don't have access to that energy level. They may get an email about success, but it's different than the visceral reaction of seeing your co-workers pound their fists.
As an example, I had a software engineer years ago who worked remotely. He came to talk with me about why he was leaving the company. From his perspective, "nothing was happening" and so he needed to move on. I was surprised, because the company was hitting all cylinders. The fact was, he didn't know it because he didn't hear the metaphorical bell ringing in the office.
For larger companies where the individual voice is often muted by hundreds of other things, the loss of "company productivity" that I am talking about is probably negligible. But, in startups, we have a higher calling. We create things out of nothing. We are makers of things. We need to all be in the same room as long as possible.
Can work at home function for some companies? Obviously it can and Dave has made it work at TeamSnap really well.
Management is about doing what you believe works. You can read a lot of books, but ultimately success depends on doing what works for you and surrounding yourself with people who share your values and approach.
Would I let my startup employee's work at home on a regular basis? No way.