Yahoo’s Remote Working Ban Could Hurt Development

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By Lianna Brinded | February 26, 2013 11:04 PM EST

(Photo: Reuters)

Marissa Mayer has banned Yahoo! employees from working from home, dividing opinion as dissidents against the "new era of collaboration" will be forced to leave.

Prior to Mayer's Yahoo's leadership, she held the title as Google's first female engineer and worked for the tech giant for 13 years.

As with all tech companies, Yahoo relies on an army of software architects to produce and develop new programmes and products but the memo delivers a new way of working that will adversely effect its key workforce. 

"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together," says the memo written by an HR rep but from Mayer herself and first reported in influential tech site All Things D.

But the new instruction has already been slammed by a number of business leaders.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, called Mayer's alleged new direction as "perplexing and backwards" in his blog.

"We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they at their desk or in their kitchen. Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will," Branson added.

While a number of media outlets have spent time supporting the idea of forcing employees to work in an office, presumably because it fits the wider ideal that most people work better under supervision, computer software developers, coders and technicians reveal a different story.

"Comically, the same thing [as Mayer's remote working ban] happened at my work two months ago and it was met with hysterical outcries. There's no real benefit for a coder being in the office other than 'your manager can check up on you more effectively'," said Lee Gent, software architect at Aria Networks.

"The problem is being in the office means you get interrupted - interrupted by the phone, your colleagues, everything around you distracts you. [For my job] it takes 15 minutes for a coder to get 'into the zone' and truly focus on the task. A five-second interruption can actually cost you 15 minutes of work time or a half an hour of wasted work," Gent added.

Studies have shown that the smallest interruption in an office environment that most of us take for granted inflicts profoundly adverse effects on to the software developer or IT worker's productivity.

Research carried out by Rini Van Solingen into communication "interrupts" showed that 15-20 percent of an employee's effort was spent dealing with interrupts. That translates real terms as 15-20 minutes per interrupt.

An interrupt is defined as "any distraction that makes a developer stop his planned activity to respond to the interrupt's initiator" and the three definitions include personal visits, telephone calls and emails.

Blow to developer productivity

Personal visits and telephone calls caused 90 percent of all interrupts and email caused the rest, according to the report.

This is a huge blow to developer productivity because it is said to consume roughly 1 to 1.5 hours per day of the coder's time.

Books written by programmers have said a lack of distractions is why coders work better at night.

"There is a lot to be said about working in an uninterrupted environment, which is why a lot of IT professionals prefer working late at night. Being able to just sit and think about what tasks are at hand and to fully engage yourself in the right mindset for 10 minutes without any distractions is beyond helpful," said Jeffery Harrold, an IT Technician in the UK.

"Every time I visit the office, the background noise and contant interruptions from people asking for help means I can't code while I'm there. If I ever get 10 minutes to myself it's a miracle. It is also 10 minutes filled with 'so when is the next interruption going to appear?' instead of trying to get my mind working the way it needs to."

Even major global investment banks have understood the need for software developers to work from home from time to time.

"In software development of sufficient size, it is impossible for any one man to know every aspect of the project, so a culture of knowledge sharing is actively encouraged. What becomes an issue, however, is when there is an over-reliance of face-to-face inquiries - this can mean it's very difficult to get work done without interruption. Working from home affords you unbroken concentration as an email is a lot easier to defer than someone tapping on your shoulder," said one source who works in trading platform software development in one of Britain's largest investment banks.

Reduced overheads, improved morale

A developer at one of the world's largest management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company Accenture, said that the firm encouraged working from home for developers, particularly in areas where office space is at a premium. 

In turn the company benefits from reduced overheads, improved employee morale and increased productivity.

"On occasions when I need to collaborate with my colleagues I prefer to be in the office. However, I find the option to work from home is invaluable when I'm working long hours or I really need to concentrate," said Sarah Spotswood, web applications developer at Accenture, which employs 259,000 people.

"Time that may have been spent getting ready for the office and travelling can be spent working instead.  This allows me to manage my time more effectively and achieve a better work-life balance. 

"My job often involves long hours so this can make a real difference to my productivity and general wellbeing. I work in an open-plan office, which is not an ideal environment for thinking through complex problems.  Working from home offers the peace I need when I really have to concentrate."

But there are some upsides which may support the message in the alleged Yahoo memo.

"For balance I will say that working from home all of the time isn't a good idea. There are some things that work best face-to-face. For instance, just looking around the office, there are two guys on one monitor trying to solve a problem," said Gent.

The idea of working in an office as a developer is not all bad but potentially forcing some 11,500 Yahoo employees into an office environment for the sake "keeping face" is not only damaging to morale but also to productivity.

The move is also highly questionable for those working mothers who can just as effectively work from home as a coder and cannot afford to build their own nursery in the office like Mayer. But that's for another column at another time.

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