Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Letter From America

Shortly before I left home for Los Angeles, a family friend gave me a card that contained a clip from the New York Times.

Framed and yellowing, it sits in my studio today.

Seiji Tsutsumi has spent his life building a literary career as well as a business empire. Under the pen name Takashi Tsujii, he published the following poem, "Letter From America," in 1964, shortly after returning from several months in Los Angeles, where he failed in trying to establish a Seibu department store. The poem, which first appeared in a book called "Letter With No Address," was translated by Hisao Kanaseki and Timothy Harris.
Steel sheets flow out in long belts
Keeping a quiet rhythm.
The evening glow paints the sky a flaming red.
People line up who have forgotten they were once created by people and flow like magnetic sands on a magnet.
There, on the continent that was proclaimed to be new, love is no more than a crudely fashioned machine.
I, like you, am alone and drink salt in the dawn. 
People seek solace in far fields, leaving the cities at a hundred miles an hour.
They eat exactly the same food, importing chopsticks from the Orient, cooked raspberries from Alaska, creating fads which denounce fads, only faintly remembering that they, as embryos, looked like fish, turtles, bulls.
Tropical rhythms beat out from speakers built into walls, coating the glittering steel. 
I am alone.
You are alone.
In the conference room the gavel shrieks of everlasting prosperity. 

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Working from Home

Marissa Mayer is making big waves with her recent rescinding of "work at home" for Yahoo employees. Many articles have sprung up in its wake, most arguing extreme sides of the issue ("Working from home is awesome!" "NO, working from home is terrible!")

The imagined "work from home" paradise, courtesy of GlassDoor
There are 2 things worth noting here.

The first is why Ms. Mayer made this change. She's not anti-work-from-home, she's anti-useless-employee. I'm paraphrasing, but she basically said "There are a lot of these people who are useless/not productive".

Rather than having managers identify these people, or otherwise holding the managers or employees accountable, she's opting to make them all show up at the office instead.

Personally, I think this is a mistake, as it just shifts the metaphorical (and literal) lumps under the carpet from fake-working at home to fake-working at Yahoo.

I've been working in offices for the majority of my adult life. It's easy to look busy while contributing nothing. And at a big dumb slow company like Yahoo, it's sometimes hard to actually get any "real work" done between endless meetings and teleconferences and the other minutiae of daily office life.

There are some companies who already have "work from home days" for their entire office staff, with the justification that "it's too hard to get work done at the office because of email and meetings and stuff". Think for a moment about what that says about those organizations.

Still, this is an easy step for Mayer to take. She issues an edict, there's a sudden change, and effects are felt. What really matters is whether or not she and her managers can then rid themselves of the dead wood they somehow could neither identify nor remove previously (I'd argue this is more a failure of the managers than the employees).

The other thing worth noting is this: I think working from home is great, smart, and will become increasingly common.

Some of this is the migration of "shadow work" into the white-collar workplace. Companies will realize the more they can get you to work at home, the less they have to take care of you themselves. You clean (or don't) your own home office and bathroom.

Companies will realize every day an employee is at home is a day they're not using office electricity, bandwidth, water, and supplies. It's like making you buy your own uniform. And desk. And chair.

Some companies will realize they can offer work from home as a "perk", because some people think working from home is a privilege. Instead of paying you $10,000 more, they'll "allow" you to work from home one or more days a week. (I had a job like this not long ago which allowed me to work from home every Friday, which was fantastic and had mutual benefits. We both got more work and happiness out of  me because I didn't have to drive over the Bay Bridge in Friday rush hour traffic).

Obviously, each situation is different. Your company might have amazing offices with great seating and quiet and comfortable temperatures.

Or it might be a dingy, depressing fluorescent hell that oscillates between pit-stainingly hot and hypothermia-inducing cold every hour, with a constant stream of interruptions and complaints. Plus bathrooms that make you long for the cleanliness of a bus station.

And as for home, maybe you have a tranquil paradise with fast internet, a nice desk, and enough discipline to get stuff done without ending up on the couch at 3 pm in your underwear with one hand in a bag of Doritos and another wrapped around an alcoholic beverage.

Or maybe you have kids and relatives and pets and piles of dirty laundry and dishes and you look forward to getting out of the house for 8-10 hours each day because it's the only peace and quiet you get.

Regardless, most of the people I know already "work from home" regularly: We check email all the time, from the minute we wake up until right before we go to sleep. We do conference calls. Read and write documents. We do it Saturday and Sunday. It might slow to a trickle, but it never completely stops.

It's not like the whistle blows at 5:30 and you leave it all in the factory, because that's where the assembly line or machine press is installed. You are the factory.

That constant stream of work trivia has an effect. Even if you think it's nothing, because it only takes a few minutes, it keeps "work" in your conscious mind far more. This makes it harder for you to get perspective, to let your unconscious wrestle with problems, and to truly rest. It can lead to burnout.

I suspect the most successful companies won't be the ones like Yahoo, who effectively ban or kill working from home. Nor will they be Google, who induce you to stay at the office by providing food, cleaning, and an increasingly hermetic environment.

Successful companies will be those who figure out how to give employees the right mix of things: Quiet, calm spaces in which to think and work; options for dynamic connection, working sessions/meetings, and spontenaity; and the ability to shift between necessary personal and professional tasks and environments as needed.

(In my own experience, most offices grossly underestimate the quantity and quality of meeting space required, and make arbitrary decisions about employee working spaces without factoring in the specific employees, or the type of work and work style they will have.)

Future-thinking, inventive companies might create work spaces with "quiet floors" and "discussion floors", which employees can transition between as needed, for example. Maybe you and your team spend your mornings in an open floor plan, whiteboarding and planning out the work that you'll do at your desk on the quiet floor in the afternoon.

Put another way, if you can't trust the people you hire to work from home in a relatively unsupervised environment, what makes you think you can trust them to work at the office?

Good employees know themselves well enough to understand what environment works for them. Some people need the structure and routine of an office some or all of the time. Some are just poorly matched for their particular office cultures, and reasonable "offsite" work accommodations of some sort are as important for unlocking their value as a computer and internet access.

Regardless, we should all be mindful of what our work consists of, and attempt to "clock out" regularly. "Home" isn't just the place you don't have a desk and see your work colleagues, right? It's not just where you sleep and shower and change clothes.

It should be a place where you can rest, in every sense, and perhaps enjoy the fruits of all that labor.