Justin Jackson

How to end the remote work debate

Is a college degree worth it?

3 rules for producing a great team

  1. Hire the best people
  2. Empower them to do their best work
  3. Give them a vision for helping the customer

Simple right? When you look through the lens of “how can we build great stuff?” as opposed to “which work environment is best?” everything becomes clear.

This debate is about management

What people are missing in the “Yahoo work from home ban” is that this is a management issue. It’s not about “remote vs non-remote”; it’s about having the flexibility to create great work. The HR manager at Yahoo thinks the solution is black-and-white:

Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
– Jackie Reses, Head of HR, Yahoo

Do you hear what she’s saying? It’s the old management diatribe: “I don’t trust you, and I know the best way to make you work.” But awesome, creative people, who take responsibility for their work, don’t build great things in an environment like that. If this is Yahoo’s cure for innovation, I think they’re doomed.

This debate has exposed something significant about managers: many of them are insecure! They’re scared about losing (a perceived sense) of control. They want to stick with what’s comfortable and safe. They would rather “do it their way” than think outside the box and empower their team.

What good managers do

I’m a remote manager of a team of ten. We ship a lot of mission critical stuff.
– Laura Thomson, Engineering Manager at Mozilla

Good managers hire great people, and empower them to do great work. This means hiring people so good that you could leave for a 2 month holiday and not worry about the office. Managers should be talking to their team, and asking them: “How can I help you make your job better?” If the answer to that question is: “We need a better office” than do everything you can to make a kick-ass office. But if the answer to that question is: “I’d like to work from home on Thursdays” than make it happen! Yes, every job, product, and company will have certain constraints. The point is to create as much job flexibility as you can so your people can succeed.

The only time a manager should fear a flexible workplace is if they’ve hired the wrong people. If you’ve broken Rule #1, all bets are off. It doesn’t matter what kind of office you have; mediocre people create mediocre results. Unfortunately, great people with mediocre management also create mediocre results.

It’s all about management: hire the best, equip them to do the best work possible, and give them a vision for where you’re going.

So companies don’t have to get caught in a tug-of-war between letting their employees work remotely or forcing them to come to work and collaborate. Collaboration can happen even among in-house employees and teleworkers. It simply takes a different managerial skill set.
– E. Glenn Dutcher, New Research: What Yahoo Should Know About Good Managers and Remote Workers

There’s a discussion on this post at Hacker News here

Published on February 28, 2013

Don’t call it a comeback (working remotely)

Remote working has existed for centuries. And now is the perfect time for it’s comeback.

Before and after the Revolution

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, goods were manufactured by contracting individual craftsmen who worked out of their homes. The merchant would drum up sales, and would coordinate the production with at-home sub-contractors.

Even back then, home working was popular because it gave people more freedom:

The domestic system was suited to pre-urban times because workers did not have to travel from home to work which was quite impracticable due to the state of roads and footpaths. Workers had some flexibility to balance farm and household chores with [this other] work.

– Wikipedia, Putting-out systemhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putting-out_system

This all changed with the Industrial Revolution: production was centralized in factories and cities.  For merchant capitalists, this made sense: it was cheaper and more efficient to produce goods in one place, with machinery.

The Information Age came, but work didn’t change

We’ve been in the Information Age for at least 25 years. We’ve made huge leaps in technology. Many of us would describe ourselves as Knowledge Workers: we don’t work in factories, we work at desks in front of glowing screens. We don’t make goods with physical materials, but rather things made out of bits. The great thing about bits + the internet is that the materials and means needed for production aren’t dependent on location.

But here’s the funny thing: the way work is organized hasn’t changed. Despite all these advances, most of us still work in central offices. Employees leave their computer-equipped homes, and drive long distrances to work at computer-equipped offices.

It’s management that’s broken

CEOs, like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Apple’s Steve Jobs, think that a central office fosters more innovation and productivity. I think they’re wrong. We’re still early in the research, but recent studies seem to dispute their claim.

Studies and data aside, we know, at least anecdotally, that distributed teams can create tremendous innovation. Automattic  created the world’s most popular publishing platform. 37signals helped create a programming framework that powers “tens of thousands of  applications”. At both companies, the majority of their employees work remotely (or have the option to do so).

It’s not remote working that’s broken, it’s management habits that needs to change.

Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.
– Jackie Reses, Head of HR, Yahoo

Managers have developed centuries worth of habits based on the central workplace. The hallmarks of office work (meetings, cubicle workstations, colocation) need to be seen for what they are: traditions we’ve kept alive since the Industrial Revolution. We need to question these institutions: are they really more innovative and efficient?

To succeed, we’ll need some practice

To give remote working an honest chance, there needs to be a paradigm shift. Managers need to practice new ways of organizing people, and producing results. Individual employees need a chance to practice self-management, taking initiative, and collaborating online. Developing new habits takes time and commitment.

What does success look like? Taking millions of cars off the road, because people no longer need to commute. Reducing stress and improving the mental health of employees. And ultimately, increasing innovation and producing better products (as shown by platforms like WordPress and Ruby on Rails).

Discuss this post on Hacker News.

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Published on February 23, 2013

What is real work?

“Hey kids, don’t bother daddy, I’m working.”

“But dad, you’re watching YouTube!”

It should be obvious, but we’ve all rationalized work activities that aren’t real work.  Furthermore, we get caught up doing too many maintenance tasks that don’t earn revenue. What we need to do, on a regular basis, is realign ourselves with work that provides value for our customers.

For me, it’s been helpful to sort my work into 4 categories: (more…)

Published on March 4, 2012