The Myth of Catfish in the Modern Workplace

telecommuteI am a little late to the hoopla around Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s mandate to end remote work arrangements.While she put a positive spin on the benefits of increased collaboration from more face time, the policy seemed to really be about the negative perceptions of remote workers using their time for personal chores, playing games like Words With Friends and generally engaging in non-productive activities.

The media promptly blew up after the announcement with extensive “to work remote or not to work remote” debates, many of which predicted the death of the remote worker as Best Buy followed suit. My reaction? I chuckled. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am writing this post from my home office. I am a remote worker, hence my bias. (Though I will also admit that this blog post is interfering with my afternoon Minecraft session.)

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I understand Marissa Mayer’s intent, and I respect it. However, I believe that this decision is a management anachronism for many, many reasons. Here are a few:

MYTH: People who work from home are less productive, work-shunning slugs. Seen people are the real performers. Wow! What happened to the management by objective (MBO) concept? Its WHAT you achieve, not HOW you achieve it! The whole move to MBOs was an open acknowledgement that the accomplishment of key projects was more important than the time required to do it. Seems like the logic is reverting back to “if you are seen, then you are engaged and productive – and therefore effective.” This is a shift of focus away from effectiveness, and back to presence.

So what is the “Myth of Catfish” I referred to in the title of this post? Well, for those of you unfamiliar with the urban term “catfish” from the documentary of the same name, it refers to someone who pretends to be someone they are not, by using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances. Think Manti Te’o. the debate surrounding remote workers, the media has taken to presenting telecommuters as catfish. They pretend to be a productive worker when really they are at home watching The View or The Price is Right while sending the occasional email. Thanks to Marissa Mayer’s memo, the productive remote worker is a catfish to be exposed. And I do not believe that they are truly that difficult to find.

MYTH: We collaborate better when we are physically together. I do not necessarily disagree with this, but I do believe that requiring people to go to some mammoth corporate campus will not necessarily result in people physically collaborating together more often.

I can also speak to the experience of being an on-site worker at the Silicon Valley campus of a large software company akin to Yahoo. The campus had multiple restaurants and dining options, bikes to ride between buildings, sand volleyball courts and basketball courts and all the other accoutrements to make you want to move in and stay 24/7.

During my tenure, I showed up in the office five days a week (except for travel). My boss travelled extensively, so I rarely saw him. This company was global in operation and most of my teammates were not physically in the U.S. Though most meetings had a regularly scheduled time with an associated physical room, most people would simply dial in from their office on campus. With back-to-back meetings — starting in one building and the next on the other side of campus, followed by another a couple miles away — I followed suit and started dialing into meetings from my office – essentially working remotely within the office.

These vast campuses, built in the ’90s for tech companies, are where today’s online empires reside. Facebook is stationed in the former Sun campus: built in the ’90s. Google resides in the former SGI campus: built in the ’90s. Yahoo resides in former corporate campus of the former ’90s high-flyer Exodus.The key difference is in two major phenomena that have changed how we work since these physical buildings broke ground. Today:

  1. Work is always on.
  2. Mobility is the core of how things get done.

In the ’90s, when I was sitting at my company’s mammoth corporate campus, most of my work was relegated to email and phone, with the understanding that not much happened after hours and things could (and would) wait until the next business day (no matter how much I pushed or prodded people). Today, if my boss texts me on Friday night with a directive to send a quick email to a prospect, I will step out and do it. If a production issue occurs after hours and one of my employees does not inform me until the following morning because they did not want to bother me, I lecture them because I too expect – nay, demand! – real-time communication and collaboration, even if it happens after hours and I am far away from our offices.

It is staggering to think of how many work tools I use today compared to the ’90s. Take a look:

1990s Today
Office phone VOIP phone that includes a PC and mobile client app
Cell phone Smartphone
PC-based laptop MacBook and iPad
Lotus Notes Multiple email and IM systems which includes messaging in LinkedIn (InMail), Facebook, etc.
MS Office MS Office + Google Drive + OpenOffice
Conference call (traditional dial-in) Skype, FaceTime, GoToMeeting, SlideShare, and other web conferencing tools
Scores of productivity apps for the iPad, including Evernote, Keynote, ExpenseIt, etc.
Salesforce.com and Salesforce Chatter
DropBox
Mobile BI for iPad

By no means does the list above completely capture how the cloud has enabled me to do so much more than what a physical corporate environment could provide, but I think you get the picture now.

And it is this belief in the always-on work world that drove us to create Provade Mobile – as recognition of the way our users are moving through their day. We are enabling productivity on a specific level, sure – but without these types of apps, our users would not be able to operate in real time, whether that be across campus or from the couch.

So what is my final ruling on remote workers?

I cannot possibly argue that there are unproductive remote workers. I think such workers are in similar numbers to the population of unproductive workers that appear in the physical office. Unproductive and productive people work both remotely and in the cube right next to you. You can find bad apples wherever you go.

This is why it does not matter in my opinion whether you work remotely or not. The world has become very wired and real-time. Whether you are in the office or not, you must embrace new tools that leverage the cloud, that empower you to be productive and connected regardless of where you are and what you are doing. That is the truly effective modern worker. That worker is not a catfish, but the real deal.

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Edward "EJ" Jackson
Edward “EJ” Jackson is president of Provade, which delivers an enterprise-class vendor management system for global workforce spend management.

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