Does working from home work ?

Posted on November 4, 2009 by


– by Jyotsna Pattabiraman

Happened on “The Way I work” series put together by the folks at Inc. Magazine, featuring people like Jason Fried from 37 SignalsEssie Weingarten of Essie Cosmetics Matt Mullenweg of WordPress and others. I seem to remember that Fortune Magazine had done a similar series on leadership behemoths like Colin Powell and John McCain, but Inc.’s set is a lot more inspirational and actionable to me because they feature entrepreneurs . BTW, Inc. has some really good content for startups – wonder how I never came across it before.

A lot of folks in the series talked about how they don’t really require their employees to come in to work and are perfectly happy with them working from home. Well, this is something I subscribed to when I first got to Bangalore from the Valley, but over the past year, have changed my stance significantly. You would think that, on the surface, working from home would be a good solution in a city where traffic is the single biggest deterrent to productivity, but as I found out, the cultural and infrastructural set up doesn’t really support that. Here’s why .

Spotty power and connectivity : The first shocker for most people like me is that power and internet connectivity are unreliable in India. You or your employee might be terrifically productive at home – but you do need power and internet connectivity , right ?  In India, the power and network connectivity have frequent outages, sometimes several times a week. If your employee does not have a generator at his place, then he’s pretty much out cold for the count. It may take a few minutes or several hours for him to become productive again –  how is that going to impact your project ? At the very best, this kind of experience is very frustrating, at the middling, it is lost time that you can never regain, at the worst it becomes an excuse for every late project.

I just called to say “Your code sucks”: Having tough conversations is that much more complicated when you’re not face to face. The difficulty of demonstrating how something does not work on your machine when someone else claims that it works on his machine is exacerbated by distance. We’ve had that experience , and it was not fun. Our team has changed since, and I’m happy to say that we all come in to work and don’t have the same issues any more.

The team that has fun together stays together : You miss out on a lot of the good stuff when you’re working from home. At MoovieShoovie, we all come in and leave at different times, but we have lunch together. Talking and gossiping for this short thirty-minute period every day is an effective adhesive – it brings us closer so that we don’t have to do any “team-building activities” ( though, of course, we go out pretty much every fortnight). Employees who don’t come in miss that camaraderie. I wonder how they managed to build the team spirit at 37sig, wordpress et. al. when they were all in their individual cocoons.

That said, I think one of the unsaid points in all these articles was that people do creative work on their own schedule and not always from 9 am to 6 pm. I totally agree with that principle- it’s just that working in India needs a different model. Out here we are most productive when we come in to work, have reliable infrastructure and enjoy the face-to-face interactions. None of our meetings last more than 30 minutes, and we never have more than 2 a week. Almost everything can be resolved with a 45-second conversation across the table, so our email traffic is at a minimum.  Which is a relief in itself.

BTW, we use Google sites to help us track weekly deliverables. What do other people use ?