Yahoo! A giant step backwards for man (and woman) kind!

Jon

Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Feb 27, 2013 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Recently Yahoo! announced that they are going to require their telecommuting employees to find an office near them and report every day to that office instead of telecommuting, which had been the practice of a large number of employees for many years.

The reasons given were many, ranging from “Yahoo! re-inventing itself and needing to have people in the office to share ideas 'around the water cooler'” to “improving morale”.

I have worked for many companies over many years.

My first "real job" in 1973 was at an insurance company where 400 people worked on each of four floors with desks lined up in rows arranged in “unit groups”. The most junior members of each group sat in the front rows, the more senior sat in back of them and the unit leader sat behind them, with the only “privacy partition” being behind that person and with the only phone being on that unit leader's desk.

Key punches were still the order of the day for a lot of programming, although terminals did exist in shared alcove areas for inputting your programs. Portable hard-copy terminals with 30 cps acoustic couplers were available for taking home at night and over the weekends.

Later I went to another division of the same company where our desks faced one another, so we could see the faces of the people in our team instead of the back of their heads.

In 1977 I went to teach at a small two-year technical college. We had an “open door” policy in our department, with the doors to the professors' offices always being open unless we were having a private conversation with a student about their performance.

At Bell Labs (1980-1983) most people had shared offices, with either two or four people to an office. It would be no surprise for people to know that every person at Bell Labs had a phone on their desk.

It was at Bell Labs that I began to realize that many companies will promote good technical people to managers without ever giving them the managerial training they would need to be successful.

In the days of the insurance company, most of the “real work” was done in one gigantic building in Hartford, Connecticut. We had “field offices” that were responsible for the day to day work of “insurance”, but the policies and planning were done in one building. With Bell Labs the main laboratories tended to be specialized, and the sharing of ideas was done by papers, telephone conversations and the electronic email of the day "uucp".

At Digital Equipment Corporation we typically had “private” cubicles, with walls about chest high.  If you were sitting down you could not be seen, but if you stood up you could be seen, and perhaps someone looking for you could see you and come over to talk with you. Each person had a telephone (with voicemail) and a computer (sometimes two or three) on their desk.

Administrative secretaries typically had a cubicle with one wall lower and a shelf built on top of the wall so people could easily talk with them, or pick up or drop off papers and such. These secretaries were typically placed next to one or two manager's cubicles depending on whether the manager was “second line” or “first line” management.  I often felt bad for these people, since they literally worked in a "fish bowl".

Some people, such as HR people (for discussing employee issues in private), had private offices but for the most part the offices were the same whether you were a manager or a “grunt”.

Over the years the cubicles shrunk in size from 12x12 feet to 10x10 feet, and the wall height dropped to waist high, giving less privacy.

Even in the early days of working at Digital, often engineers and managers would send email to people on the other side of their cubicle wall rather than calling and leaving voicemail or even standing up to see if they were in their office or not.  "I could call over the wall to see if they answer", one engineer told me, "but they might be gone.   If I send email I know they will receive it."

It was at Digital, which not only had many plants spread across the United States but had groups of people working on many projects, that I started to see “managerial migration”, people uplifting their families and lives when they were promoted from one group to another. One manager I knew complained that he had five “storage rental units” in five different states where he had parts of his life stored, rather than moving all that “stuff” with him. Each promotion had required that he move to another place so he could be “local” to the rest of his staff, and his "effects" he left behind.

About the same time “distributed work” and “telecommuting” were coming into vogue. First audio-only teleconferencing was done, with a large table in a room and one or two really bad teleconferencing units sitting in the middle of the table. People spent most of the meeting straining to hear what was being said, asking for it to be repeated and not understanding half of it.

After a while video conferencing started to happen, also in large rooms with very expensive equipment.   The expense (and scarcity of equipment) required people to sign up for the room, organize the meeting, and otherwise cause people to leave their cubicles and wait for the meeting to begin. The people who were perennially late were hated by the ones that were always on time.

Sales people were encouraged to work from home, since it cut down on need for office space and allowed them to be closer to their customers. At Bell Labs I contributed an office to our DEC Field Engineer so he could not have to travel fifty miles round-trip (a real plus in bad weather) just to get a part to fix something. For some reason the service level and up-time of equipment at our Laboratory both went very high while the DEC Field Rep was able to use that office as his “home base”.

After I went to Digital Equipment Corporation I became involved with Linux. When I described the Linux project that as very large and completely distributed, I was told by both management and engineers that it could never happen, and that people could not work on such a large project without being physically in the same place together. “It can not be impossible” I told them, “because it is already happening.”

Now we are in an age where a lot of young people feel more comfortable texting on a phone then they do with speaking to people in public. I ride the subway in Boston, where people used to strike up a conversation with other riders and now sit with ear-buds listening to music, with their paper shutting out any other form of contact. Worse, they have long conversations at loud levels with invisible people while other riders are subjected to one half of an inane conversation.

Many people live in areas where they can get high speed Internet, and can easily have multiple streams of high definition video coming into their homes. Forums and Wikis allow people to exchange ideas, GoogleTalk allows for “hangouts” where people can see and talk to each other. Collaboration software allows multiple people to be editing the same documents at the same time, while talking to the people in the meeting...all without leaving their cubicle, desk, or bed.

Facilities like GoogleTalk (or good use of Free Software such as Asterisk) can allow people to receive calls wherever they are, on whatever device, at a fraction of the cost (or even “free”) of what it was just a few years ago.

I felt that perhaps the day when “knowledge workers” could stay at home, cutting down on office space, helping with those issues of family vs work, conserving gas and commute time, and managing their own time for efficiency was just around the corner.  I was hoping that talented people could be hired from all over the world and work together without having to live together.

So naturally I felt a little surprised to see that Yahoo! had taken what I felt was a gigantic step backwards, and (according to news reports) Google agreed that having people “in house” was better for collaboration than doing things remotely. This explains why the Silicon Valley companies are building ever bigger “*plexes” to hold all their employees close....because seemingly they can not work in the distributed way that they tell us we should be working.  It is another case of "do as we say, not as we do".

Then it hit me. What was missing from the equation was management training. Training in how to work efficiently as a remote person, and how to manage those remote people efficiently. Training in how to motivate people so they truly perform to their maximum. Training in how to use the tools that these companies are trying to get the rest of us to use. Training in effectively using “social media”.

Hmmm, isn't Yahoo! about “social media”?

So go ahead Yahoo! Show us how the Internet is not good for distributed work. Show us that the only way you can really get your people to be creative is “standing around the water cooler” (and that had better be one BIG water cooler).

I don't think I could ever work for Yahoo!, as it would be a step backwards.

Comments

  • From the point of view of a medical knowledge worker...

    ...I believe that this is a step sideways, rather than forward or backward.

    In theory, people can be more productive with fewer distractions. If one lives alone, one can limit distractions at will (it is very different if one is a single parent with >1 offspring--however, such a person may be unable to work anywhere else unless child care is available). However, we are social animals, and for some, the sheer loneliness of working at home in isolation is itself a distraction. Yes, we can reach out to others by telephone, e-mail, etc. etc. but this does not have the inherent 'richness' of face to face contact.

    In my chosen medical discipline, radiology, replacing film as an image medium with electrons (via a so called PAC (Picture Archiving and Communications System)) made possible interpreting medical images at a distance (from home, the beach, and, in my case, from the parking lot of a restaurant during family Thanksgiving dinner out). Many radiologists were afraid that image interpretation would go the way of PC support--sold to the lowest bidder, somewhere in Asia. Well, we all know how well that sort of PC support worked out (though remote support has improved, the language and culture barriers are still problematic). I myself experimented with teleimaging interpretation for a medical practice 2 hours away by automobile. I quickly found how dependent referring physicians are on the ability to get 'in the face' of the radiologist, even when there is good remote connectivity (the doctors in the practice could reach me 24/7/365 and frequently did. I also visited them at least monthly, physically (a nice drive in the country, though a bit hairy at times in the winter). In the end, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief when the local hospital finally found a radiologist who could read the specialized (nuclear heart and ultrasound vascular and obstetric) studies nearby, instead of having them sent 'by wire' to me. On another occasion, I found that the local ER docs were uncomfortable with the 'Nighthawk' service our practice was using--despite the fact that the remote radiologists (physically located in Australia) were local academic radiologists, almost all American expatriates and American trained by excellent training programs. This despite the fact that our subsequent review of their readings (we still did final interpretation of all studies read remotely) revealed disagreement in only about 1 in 1000 studies (which is truly outstanding), and, I must admit, those transplanted Aussie radiologists often could read rings around me in Computed Tomography early on (I had to learn CT 'on the job' where I was, something that I later found out was NOT RECOMMENDED by academic radiology--I agree with this, learning CT that way was a series of adventures for me and sometimes, sadly, for my patients, though fortunately nobody got injured by my lack of expertise early on, and I DID get a lot better with experience). As with other areas of medicine, there is both art and science in radiology, and much of the art is in exactly HOW a given radiologist expresses image findings and interpretation thereof in a given report. It is now established by research that evening and night interpretations are truly comfortable for referring physicians (mostly, late at night, ER docs) if and only if the interpreting radiologist is local (in the same or a very close by location, potentially available for face to face consultation). Otherwise, regardless of the ability of the remote radiologist, the referring docs are uneasy, even more so if the ER is 'high intensity'--a major trauma or referral center.

    So, what does this have to do with Yahoo? In any highly technical area, I believe, personal interaction face to face is still, I believe, very useful and can lead to a lot of serendipitous discovery. I note that all 3 of my almae matris (I hope I got the declensions right, Latin still kills me, even 50 years later) have designed and built new science buildings intended to promote physical interactions between researchers.

    Just because insurance companies have been run like slave ships (OK, I exaggerate slightly), ditto engineering venues, among others, with the irritation of limited or absent privacy adding injury to insult, does not mean that there is no potential value in being in the same general area as your co-workers. The key, as is pointed out in this post is MANAGEMENT, which is the art and science of choosing the right people to inhabit the shared space, treating them appropriately so that they like the experience (and get along with each other), providing tasks that are worth doing, and encouraging and rewarding effective performance. As with other arts and sciences, management is much, much easier IN PERSON.

    I hope Yahoo makes exceptions for those few who can only work from home (or the beach on Sri Lanka). After all in effective management, FLEXIBILITY is important, too.
  • It's more about control

    According to my experience, I'd rather think that requirement to "live together" is more about control than about effectiveness and "sharing ideas".
    Managers can force all to attend "urgent" meeting if everybody are in the same place. Though it somehow appears "not so urgent" in distributed team, and managers cannot find out what they should do in such environment...
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