What’s good for Yahoo might not be good for your law firm. The corporation has attracted enormous attention for its new ban on working from home, giving remote workers three months to relocate to its corporate offices.
In the legal world, though, telecommuting is on the up and up, with firms in recent ILTA surveys using more remote access technologies each year. What is so different about Yahoo? And what can law firms learn from its decision?
Yahoo cited collaboration as a key benefit to having its employees on-site, even though remote collaboration technologies today are very advanced. Yahoo HR head Jacqueline Reses wrote in a February 22nd memo to employees, “Communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.” Her first statement is inarguable: in a knowledge-based industry, whether you deliver web services or legal services, the tasks you confront are multi-faceted and all but demand teamwork. Delays in communication can severely hamper a team’s productivity.
The thing is, technology has made “collaboration” and “side-by-side” an outdated pair. Microsoft Lync, for instance, offers video conferencing, file sharing, and “screen sharing,” so that remote coworkers can view and discuss the same document. Further, it integrates with Outlook, so that starting a conversation with one of your contacts is as easy as writing an email. Some of these functions are also offered by services like Skype, Join.me, or CoPilot. These tools help lawyers accomplish client work more quickly and efficiently. They even turn situations that would otherwise be downtime into opportunities for billable hours.
These products have improved immensely in the past few years, making remote collaboration easier and more accessible. Why is Yahoo moving in the opposite direction?
Yahoo also claimed that it wants more serendipitous interactions between its workers, but these too can be achieved remotely. The same memo stated, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions…and impromptu team meetings.” This speaks to the value of brainstorming and creative discussions than can arise from unplanned conversation. The New York Times pointed out that Yahoo has taken other measures to encourage employees to socialize and interact informally, like offering free food in the company cafeteria.
While remote workers may miss out on cafeteria food, it is a misconception that they are bad for brainstorming. Remote workers can contribute distinct perspectives. Giving lawyers control over their own space lets them select the environment that best enables their own creativity. What’s more, accepting remote workers opens a law firm or business to a wider range of potential employees, with different experiences, lifestyles, and ideas.
(As for unplanned interaction, try virtual camaraderie. In short: instead of waiting for a scheduled meeting to activate your video camera, try leaving it on for a continual virtual presence. A session with a coworker could be the digital equivalent of sharing a cube.)
The Real Reason Yahoo Can’t Support Remote Working
Yahoo’s real problem turns out to be a people issue, not technical backwardness. Since the February 22nd memo surfaced, ex-Yahoo employees have revealed that the company suffers from low morale and poor work ethic. According to a New York Times interviewee, “some [of the 200 remote employees] did little work for the company and a few had even begun their own start-ups on the side.” All the communication and collaboration tools in the world are not going to help people who do not want to collaborate.
This is bad news for Yahoo, but encouraging for law firms. For Yahoo, it means that the in-office strategy is not enough. As Richard Branson wrote in a much-publicized response to Yahoo’s memo, “to successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other.” Changing attitudes and instilling trust is a more difficult and gradual task than changing a work-from-home policy. Perhaps by combining in-office working with other initiatives, like the free food, Yahoo will build rapport with its workers.
For law firms and for the rest of the world, the non-technical nature of Yahoo’s challenges underscores the progress and the promise of remote working technologies. New videoconferencing and online collaboration tools are becoming more effective, and workers are growing more comfortable with them. While they may not neutralize factors like employee morale, remote access technologies continue to open up new opportunities to firms and users willing to embrace them.