The Way We Work

In the wake of both Best Buy and Yahoo’s recent ban on working from home, the topic of flexible work has taken center stage—everyone has weighed in on whether flexible work policies are beneficial or unwise. CNBC even brought these bans up with me this morning, as part of a larger discussion on the latest U.S. jobs report.

But both sides are forgetting that this is not an either/or scenario. Instead, we should really be talking about how to make each worker most productive, whether they’re in a cubicle or a cafe.

When the Yahoo news originally broke, Shane Kinder—a director of product management at oDesk (who also happens to be a former Yahoo employee)—had an insightful comment on the work-from-home debate; he explained that certain types of workers actually work better out of the office.

“A lot of modern workplaces aren’t conducive to productivity, especially for creative roles like developers or designers,” he said. “If you look at the productivity curve of a developer or designer, as the hours go by they get more and more productive. They’re thinking on a deeper level. So constant context switching is unproductive. You can’t get in the zone in 15-minute stretches. At big companies where there are a lot of meetings and distractions, this can be a problem. All our good code updates used to happen between 8pm and midnight, because that’s when developers were most productive.”

To determine which types of workers may be better suited to working remotely, we can look to the “maker/manager” theory. Coined by Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham, this theory argues that ‘makers’ (people who do concentration-intensive work like writing or coding) work best when they have large spans of uninterrupted time. Meanwhile, ‘managers’ are most effective when they have a day’s worth of meetings; they can spend their time problem-solving, making new connections, brainstorming and collaborating.

This makes managers well-suited for days in the office, while makers struggle to be effective. It can take as little as one meeting to disrupt an entire day of productivity for someone on a ‘maker schedule,’ not to mention the constant flow of tiny interruptions that come along with an office environment.

“There’s an uninterrupted brain state you have to go into when you’re coding, and it requires an uninterrupted train of thought,” said oDesk’s VP of Engineering Jeff Jackson. “Interruptions are very disruptive to developers when they’re in that brain state. So one of the major advantages of working remotely is that you’re not being subjected to constant interruptions; any of our developers will tell us that. It’s a clear advantage to not be in the office.”

The benefits of the ‘makers schedule’ are not limited to writers or developers; it can be a big advantage for anyone who does flow-based work. This includes oDesk’s Staff Economist John Horton, who has worked out a system to optimize both his ‘maker’ time and his ‘manager’ time.

“For some kinds of work, I really need long stretches of uninterrupted time,” he said. “I often use our work-from-home Tuesdays for this kind of work. I also find it effective to use ‘office hours’ to condense my meetings into pre-determined times, so my ‘manager time’ is used efficiently. Before we do have face-to-face meetings, I often prefer we start asynchronously (like via email or commenting on a Google Doc) so I can prepare when I have the time and so our face-to-face meeting time is used most effectively.”

Unlocking high performance is not about picking the right dogmatic policies to implement; it’s about setting up teams to perform at their best. It may seem like having the whole company co-located will lead to innovation and collaboration, but your most creative people may be struggling to keep up amidst incessant interruptions. It’s also tempting to think that sending everyone to work from home will improve employee satisfaction and productivity, but your most extroverted team members might be craving the interaction that the office brings.

The truth is that each worker knows their own unique productivity formula—the key to supporting their success is to find out what that is, then structure their teams accordingly and manage them effectively.

Gary Swart

Chief Executive Officer

Gary Swart is the CEO of oDesk, the world’s largest online workplace. Gary is a thought leader in entrepreneurship; how best to hire and manage teams; and the future of work, including online work. He is passionate about helping small businesses thrive, fueled by his extensive experience working with startups and small businesses that use oDesk, as well as by mentoring entrepreneurs and business school… read more