Yahoo!’s Folly

Yahoo! generated a lot of buzz recently by announcing they’d no longer allow employees to work from home. It’s a pretty daring change, and one that goes in the opposite direction a lot of companies are moving. If you read my post about why I love working from home, you won’t be surprised that I think Yahoo! is making a big mistake. The new policy is needlessly antagonizing to existing employees, and discouraging to potential hires. It perpetuates a culture of workaholism without a convincing case that face-to-face interaction is always better.

From a memo sent to Yahoo! employees:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration. Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.

If I were a Yahoo! employee, I’d be thinking seriously about whether to stay on. In the tech world, getting everyone onto a “campus” filled with “amenities” like gyms and free food is often a way to get employees to organize more and more of their lives around work. The theory here, spoken or unspoken, is that people won’t mind putting in so many hours if the environment is friendly. The company gets more bang for its salary buck, and gets to brag about their sushi chef in a recruiting brochure. The social pressure that comes along with that atmosphere is bad enough at a company that gives its employees some flexibility. Codifying it into policy makes the situation worse. This new policy sounds like a statement by Yahoo! that they no longer want to work with employees to strike a balance between the office and the rest of their lives.

This new policy won’t help recruiting either. Yahoo! isn’t exactly the darling of the tech industry that they were in the 90s. With a slate of stale and boring products, I have to imagine they have a tough time attracting top talent. High quality engineers, in particular, have a lot of choices about where to work. This new policy is going to make a tough task even tougher. Think about it: If you’re a great developer, why would you choose to work at Yahoo! when there are lot of other exciting companies that offer more flexibility? The tantalizing possibility of “impromptu team meetings” certainly isn’t goign to tip the balance in Yahoo!’s favor.

It would be easier to overlook some of the potential challenges if Yahoo! offered clear evidence that having everyone together in person got better results. Instead, the policy seems informed by outdated management-speak and the unfounded assumption that people are more productive when working in an office. The memo claims that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” but fails to back up the assertion with evidence. At the same time, it lists “impromptu team meetings” as a benefit of working in an office. Now, meetings are useful tools when managed properly, but as a software developer, the idea that an “impromptu team meeting” will help me avoid sacrificing “speed and quality” in my work doesn’t quite compute. If anything, it seems the opposite. Suppose I’m in a groove working on a new feature, and somebody drops by my office for an impromptu meeting. Suddenly, my work has been derailed, and it will take time to get back on track, even after the meeting ends.

Yahoo! doesn’t offer any reason why face-to-face interaction is better than working over email, instant messenger, Skype, or, God help us, the phone. Maybe Yahoo! hasn’t invested in the tools or infrastructure to make remote work as efficient as it could be. There are situations where face-to-face communication is easier and quicker, but there are also cases when it waste time needlessly.

Yahoo! has chosen to expend a great deal of effort rearranging their employees’ lives and getting everyone into a physical office together. They’d would probably be better off worrying about designing and developing great new products.

Facebook’s Questionable App Design

 The old style of like/comment buttons and associated counts.

The old style of like/comment buttons and associated counts.

Facebook updated its iOS app recently, including changes to the “Like” and “Comment” buttons on posts. Previously, the buttons looked a lot like HTML links, just as they do if you use Facebook in a web browser. Small, colored icons appeared to the right indicating number of times the post had been “liked” and the number of comments. If there were no likes or no comments, the icons were simply absent, meaning that the mere appearance of the icons encouraged users to tap on them. Doing so quickly displayed the comments and other information about the post.

 The new version with comments and likes obscured.

The new version with comments and likes obscured.

The new version of the app replaces the HTML-style links with bigger gray buttons. The increased size makes them easier to hit, and they turn blue if you’ve liked or commented the post. However, the number of likes and comments is bizarrely obscured in small, light-weight, gray text above the buttons. It’s no longer apparent at a glance that people have commented on a post, which in turn discourages users from reading the comments. The tap targets are also fairly small. For a social networking site whose whole business is predicated on getting people to view and interact with posts, this is a strange and baffling choice.

Facebook has long seemed like a company that doesn’t really “get” mobile. It took a long time for them to release an iOS app, and for years it was hampered by a slow, buggy, HTML-5 based design. This latest change doesn’t bode especially well for the future, either.

Why I Love Working from Home

I’ve been working from home full-time for about two years now, and I love it. When I first started working from home, I got a lot of questions and advice from friends and family. Most often, people asked if I thought I’d enjoy working from home, and whether it would bother me to be alone all day long. Some asked if I’d have trouble focusing and being productive. People who’d worked from home themselves often predicted that I’d enjoy it at first, but would eventually wish to be back in an office with coworkers. With a solid chunk of time under my belt, it’s interesting to reflect on the experience so far.

I always thought I’d enjoy working from home. Being alone during the day doesn’t bother me terribly. I have a (fairly rambunctuous) cat, who keeps me entertained throughout the workday. I also interact frequently via phone, email, and instant messaging. Far from being isolated, I find working from home provides a nice balance of some human interaction without too many distractions.

On the whole, I’m more productive when I’m working from home than I was when I worked in an office. The simple reason is that there are fewer distractions. As a software developer, I’m usually at my most productive when I can block out other goings on and focus on the task at hand. Meetings and other conversations have their place, but when it comes down to really getting things done, quiet is key. Being at home without a lot of other peoplep coming and going makes concentration a lot easier. Of course, nobody can be focused 100% of the time, but that’s just human nature.

Being able to move around the house is a great benefit that I didn’t anticipate. Sometimes I start to feel stale sitting in the same spot for a long time. In those cases, a small change of scenery can do wonders, even a small change like leaving my desk and finding a spot downstairs instead. In an office, that’s tough because you’re usually stuck with a fixed workspace. At home, I have much more flexibility. I tend to move around once or twice a day, just to change it up and keep myself energized.

Working from home also lets me multi-task in some helpful ways. Instead of spending $6 at Starbucks when I need to take a break, I throw in some laundry and make a cup of coffee in my Keurig. I can zip out at lunchtime for a quick errand, and if it takes a little longer than expected, I can just work a bit later to offset the time.

Some of these benefits, to be sure, are specific to my circumstances. I’m lucky enough to work for a company that does a great job of both being flexible and promoting productivity, and to work with a fantastic group of colleagues. I’m also in an industry, technology, that’s particularly suited to working from home. Finally, there’s the matter of temperament. Not everyone would be happy in my situation, but I’m pleased to say it works for me. I wouldn’t describe myself as an introvert, exactly – more as someone who’s comfortable both alone and in groups. I have time with family and friends in the evenings and on weekends, and I have time alone to focus on work during the weekdays. It’s a balance that’s served me well over the past two years, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Mailbox: First Impressions

After a few days of obsessive countdown checks, I finally got access to the iOS app-du-jour, Mailbox. Now that I’ve had a chance to put the app through its paces, I have a few first impressions.

Overall, the app feels polished and very well done. The interface responds quickly and smoothly. The overall theme includes very light gray textures and subtle embossing effects. There are a few nice touches in there as well – when your inbox is empty, Mailbox shows a cutout of its logo with a scenic photo in the background. Tapping on the photo shows a bigger version, and there’s even an option to see more information about the photo by viewing it in Instagram.

There’s a drawer that can slide in from the left of the main screen, which allows you to move between different folders, as well as access help and settings. The drawer is a bit of an odd outlier in terms of visual design, with brightly colored icons in an otherwise subdued app. I find the effect a little cartoonish, and they’d probably be better off with grayscale icons.

Since it’s unable to run in the background like Apple’s built-in Mail app, Mailbox uses iOS push notifications in order to deliver new message alerts. I wondered if the notifications might be slow to arrive compared with the native Mail app, but I found that the two were quite comparable. Unfortunately, push notifications can only do so much. Even after receiving a notification, Mailbox still has to connect to the server and download your new messages once you launch it. It’s a frustrating contrast to, in which messages are downloaded in the background and waiting for you. The problem is especially acute if you’re in an area of limited service, like a subway, where you might receive a notification, only to open the app and find yourself unable to reconnect to download your messages. Hopefully, Apple will allow apps like Mailbox to do some limited background downloading in iOS 7.

By default, Mailbox displays an alert on the lock screen when new messages arrive, which felt like overkill pretty quickly. I disabled the banner alerts in favor of the simple icon badge after just a few minutes.

Conceptually, Mailbox is centered around keeping your email clutter-free. The app encourages you to clear your inbox by archiving, deleting, or “snoozing” messages. It even offers to go through your inbox and archive everything for you, with an option to leave unread or starred messages where they are. When you’re done with a message, you can archive it with a swipe or delete it with a longer swipe. (There’s a quick and handy walkthrough that explains the gestures.) You can also “snooze” a message until a later time. Mailbox provides a variety of options, including “later today,” “this evening,” “this weekend,” or even “someday.” You can also pick a specific date. Once you snooze a message, it disappears from your inbox until the selected time, when it returns. You can view snoozed or archived messages by selecting tabs at the top of the screen, or by searching.

Snooze is really the killer feature in Mailbox, and I’ve found it to be quite useful so far. It’s an adjustment from my normal workflow, which involved starring messages or leaving them unread in the inbox when I needed to act on them. So far, I’ve found snooze to be a good way to dismiss messages that I need to act on, but can or should wait until later. It helps that Mailbox gives you a lot of control over the snooze timings, with a settings pane where you can customize the start and end of your day, as well as define lengths of time for options like “later today.” If you’re looking for your snoozed messages in another client, you’ll find them in a simple Gmail label. Mailbox’s servers handle moving them back to the inbox, so snoozed messages reappear even if you’re not accessing your mail from the app. The feature works well enough that I find myself wishing for it on my desktop, and shifting more of my email management to my phone.

So far, I’ve dropped Mailbox into my iPhone dock, replacing Apple’s I’m uncertain whether I’ll leave it there, as the inability to download messages in the background is frustrating, but features like snooze make Mailbox hard to resist.