On Telecommuting

There was some kerfluffle today about telecommuting. Yahoo’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer, has recently banned employees from working from home. Apparently, she believes that working from home decreases productivity.

I can see where face-to-face communication is critical for certain types of business. Some people need to shake hands to close a deal. Some need to see facial expressions.

In the five years since starting Renkara Media Group, I’ve had only two face-to-face meetings with others. One was a kickoff meeting at a hotel conference room. The other was a friendly dinner one night while I was at the WWDC in San Francisco which I only barely count as a “meeting”.

I’ve launched over 300 applications for iOS and have completed almost two dozen client projects without ever meeting or doing anything other than exchange emails and have the occasional conference call. In five years, I’ve probably had less than 30 conference calls, or about one call every two months.

When I was doing onsite consulting for my last downtown client, I used to have to wake up early every morning, dress in my fancy schmancy clothes, and rush to get to the north side of the Barrington train station by 7:30 or so, which included a mad dash across the very train tracks I was aiming to ride a train on. If I was late, which was often, they would run out of parking spots and I’d have to park in the south side lot. The south side parking lot is reserved for residents of Barrington (technically, I live in Inverness) so I couldn’t park there without getting a $30 parking ticket. Eventually I gave up, stop racing to get a parking spot, and factored in a $30 “parking fee” into my daily expenses. In the year or so that I parked there, I paid at least $6,000 in parking tickets. I hear they are building a new parking deck. For my $6,000 I really hope they build in a reserved spot for me but I’m thinking probably not.

My point being that commuting is expensive, even by train. There is the cost of the parking (usually not $30 per day), the cost of gas driving to and from the train station (or to and from the office), the cost of drycleaning office attire, and the cost of the actual train ticket. I won’t even go into the overhead costs for the business of maintaining physical office space for thousands of employees, the environmental costs of moving those employees to and from the office, the increased risk of car accidents, or the inevitable downtime from increased exposure to cold and flu viruses.

The greatest personal cost, however, is in terms of time. I left my house at 7:15 in the morning only to arrive at the office around 8:45 or so. That’s with the fastest express train there is from the Barrington station. I actually moved from my first home in West Dundee to Inverness just to have access to that express train. Just riding the train from the Big Timber stop near my old house to downtown was over 90 minutes long, not including the drive to the station or the walk from the train to the office.

With an equally fast express train going back at night, figure 3 hours total per day spent commuting. At 50 weeks a year, 5 days a week, that’s 750 hours per year spent commuting. Using an easy $100 per hour valuation on time, that’s $75,000 of time per year, or 3/4 of a million dollars of time every decade.

At a large employer like Yahoo, in an urban commuting hellhole like San Francisco, I suspect 3 hours is also a pretty normal commute. Now multiply this by 1,000 employees. That’s 3,000 hours per day, or 750,000 hours per year, wasted in commuting. And Yahoo actually has 11,500 employees.

To increase my productivity, I always tried to do some work on the train. But, like most Yahoos, my line of work is programming. Programming is really a type of problem solving, where you translate a solution in your head into instructions a computer can follow. This is not the kind of work that is easily done while having to listen to some idiot yap in his or her cell phone in the seat behind you about who got booted from The Bachelor last night. And if one has to drive to work, well, that time is completely blown since you can’t do anything except listen to books on tape. Er, CD...er, MP3, this is the 21st century (do they even make cars with tape decks anymore?).

The funny thing is that the work that programmers do is supremely compatible with telecommuting. All of the code I ever write is stored online in a secure cloud server. All of my documents are stored in Evernote or Dropbox. All of the applications I work in are backed up in the cloud (Mac App Store). In fact, setting up a new computer for me now takes less than an hour since all I have to do is, basically, sync up the new computer with all of my cloud data. I can do my work from anywhere on earth that has a network connection. Why would anyone choose to do that work in the confines of a stuffy office clad in the latest designer grays?

When I hear about some executive complaining about employee productivity and telecommuting, it always screams “trust issues” to me. That and they probably have hired the wrong kind of employees. Having been a project manager, team leader, and employer, I prefer to work with and hire people who need minimal managing. They should be self-motivated such that once they know what work needs to be done, they can work independently until such time as they finish the assignment or need to reach out for guidance. And, as far as I’m concerned, they can do that anywhere they want, at any time of day that they want, as long as the work that gets done is completed on time and to the highest quality. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, expressed similar views on his blog recently.

Now that I work from home 100% of the time, I finally have a work/life balance. I have time to spend with my family. I have time to get my workouts in. I have time for a proper breakfast (or at least my awesome breakfast shake) before starting work. I’m home when the kids get home from school. All I needed for that to happen was to eliminate the stupid commute.

In the end, the standard onsite 9-to-5 job is a relic of the assembly lines of the mid-1900s when workers had to be physically present to do their jobs. Telecommuting is the future, something that, sadly, Yahoo won’t be a part of.