Policy is like a cast

Policies and procedures, hierarchy, and bureaucracy are similar to a cast, a brace, or a splint. They’re incredibly useful to immobilize a broken bone so that it will heal. They remove judgment from the equation: If you want to move beyond the limits of your hobble, you can’t. That sort of limitation is something you need if your culture is broken and you’re trying to help it heal, but it’s something you definitely don’t want if you’re healthy.

Earlier this year, Marissa Mayer recognized this when she began restricting Yahoo employees’ freedom to work remotely. Remote employees were struggling to be productive, and their results clearly showed it. That represented systemic failures across the board in hiring, onboarding new folks, leadership, and communication, and those failures had injured the organization so severely that the first step in repairing the damage was to introduce restrictions that would allow Yahoo’s bones to heal. If Yahoo does well, that healing will come via the departure of people who aren’t committed to the company’s success, through improved communication, through better leadership, through more selective hiring, and through more diligent onboarding.

For a healthy limb, broad range of movement is critical to strength. Artificial restrictions on motion weaken muscles, and the lack of use eventually causes bone brittleness. So if you are relying on a cast, splint, or brace to prevent injury from happening, you’re making yourself more susceptible to injury.

Once Yahoo has healed its bones, Mayer can (and hopefully will) strip off the cast, and focus on strengthening muscles.

When working remotely works, and when it doesn’t

We don’t have a policy about where, when, or how people should work. This flexibility is pretty easy to manage with only a half dozen folks, and it takes great effort to scale. We’re now at 18 full time people, with about half working remotely most or all of the time.

In my experience thus far, making the return greater than the investment requires a focus on hiring the right sort of folks, onboarding them in a way that makes them a fully-engaged part of the team, and fostering a culture that supports both remote and on-site employees.

When remote working breaks down, I believe it’s a product of bad hiring decisions, missteps in the onboarding process, an unsupportive culture, or a combination of all three.

When considering whether or not to restrict employees’ freedom to work in the manner and location they choose, managers and leaders must make a decision about where to invest their time: Do they wish to invest in policy and oversight or in culture and empowerment? Both require a great deal of effort, carry their own risks, and produce different sorts of rewards. Neither is right for everyone. In my experience, the empowered work environment requires considerably more effort, and is considerably more rewarding.