coworking spaceBy Jaleh Bisharat, VP of Marketing, oDesk (the world’s largest online workplace)

Just one week after Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer issued her ‘work-in-the-office-only’ policy, Best Buy is dominating a new wave of headlines by following in her footsteps — delivering a one-two punch to the flexible work movement.

Best Buy, which was considered a trailblazer of flexible work through its popular Results-Only-Work-Environment (or “ROWE”) program, has revoked telecommuting privileges for some 4,000 non-store employees. Now, remote work will happen by exception and with managerial approval.

At Yahoo reportedly nobody is exempt, not even those who were hired with the understanding that they could work from home, a coffee shop, a co-working space, or wherever else they could find a productive environment to contribute from afar.

In the age of Skype, Google Docs, Dropbox and oDesk (where I work) these are pretty stunning pronouncements from one of the industry’s most progressive companies, and from Marissa Mayer, one of Silicon Valley’s most closely watched working Moms.

Where did it come from?

It seems that a practice presumably designed to attract talent is arousing suspicion. Are remote employees working from home, taking their children to the park or doing a bit of both?

It’s certainly true that working near crying babies is neither productive for the company, nor good for their harried professional moms.

But must we throw out the baby with the bathwater by ordering everyone back into the office? Must we go back to limiting ourselves to the talent that happens to reside within 25 miles of the office and the people who sit in a cubicle during traditional business hours?

Or is it time to reflect on how we can best harness talent, regardless of where it happens to be?

I know what it is like to be a working Mom, with small children blooming at home while I was tucked away in an office across town (in fact I blogged about it here). I also know what it is like to manage a team that is sometimes remote, because here at oDesk we have 120 employees in-house and 250 contractors around the world.

Some of my favorite tips for work-anywhere teams are as follows:

1. Expect a professional environment, wherever it is
If you wouldn’t have a baby in your office, then think twice about allowing a situation in which the employee is simultaneously babysitting. In most cases, this is not a recipe for producing exceptional work.

Workers don’t have to be in a cubicle, but they do need a space in which they can conduct professional business without distractions.

2. Clarify the boundaries
Develop a crisp understanding of the employee’s limits. One exceptionally talented working Mom I hired in the past, for example, had to pick up her young daughter at 3 pm. We accommodated the shorter but clearly stated in-office hours. In return, she made a tremendous impact on our business. I suspect she was so extraordinarily productive because she was free of guilt and worry, as well as grateful for the opportunity. She is now a well-respected leader in Silicon Valley.

3. Communicate relentlessly
Make sure everyone on your team, remote or local, understands what s/he need to accomplish, when it is due and how s/he will be measured. Put it in writing; it forces you to be crisp and removes any doubt as to what is expected. Conduct frequent status check-ins to review accomplishments, upcoming goals and any milestones or red flags.

4. Measure people by the quality of their results
Agree on measurable goals. This might be increased sales, higher levels of customer satisfaction, a well-designed product or whatever else moves the needle for your business.

If the goal is met, what matters least is where the work happened, or when it happened — as long as it was completed on time.

Some of the very best employees have a meaningful impact on the business because they deliver quality results in record time. They know how to push past “90% finished” and cross the finish line. They use ruthless prioritization to focus on what makes a difference to the business.

These people are not usually the ones who spend the most time in their cubicles. They may be working in their bunny slippers, after their children are in bed.

5. Embrace an integrated culture
At oDesk, we are avid users of collaboration technologies including Skype, Dropbox and Google Docs. Each conference room is equipped with large monitors so we can integrate remote remote participates into meetings via Skype or Google Hangouts.

We have developed an etiquette for how we work as virtual teams. Each meeting begins with an inquiry as to who is remote that day so we can bring them in via Skype or Google Hangouts. Supporting documents are distributed in advance. We greet team members who enter the meeting on a screen as warmly as we greet people in the room. A remote person wishing to speak is given priority.

Most companies invest sizable resources to find and attract the people who are most brilliant in their contributions. Should we turn our backs on exceptional flex workers who make up a large portion of our population? Or should we put our energy into designing ways to make them — and ultimately our businesses — more successful?

What do you think?

photo credit: ekai via photopin cc