Accountability, Empowerment, and Flexibility: Why WFH is more than perk

Working from home (WFH) is a great perk; a little bit of flexibility can go a long way towards reducing the stressors of balancing work and home life.

This isn’t a post about weighing the productivity of working in-office vs. remote, or collaboration vs. focus. This is a post asserting that accountability can’t truly occur without empowerment. Everyone wants to ship great product on time, and that never happens by accident. Management understands the clear and specific pressure that personal accountability drives. Engineering knows that a lot is asked of them already, and that “accountability” can be a destructive tool of poor management.

For context, we operate under the guideline of announcing our out-of-office dates ahead of time, for the usual coordination reasons. We value collaboration and team-work, and a little bit of forethought helps us maximize our collaborative energies.

This email popped into my Inbox Friday AM.

Subject: WFH Friday
I need some heads down time to wrap up my work on the FEATURE testing harness in order to stay on track for our release on Wednesday. Yesterday was basically Pair with Gilfoyle->Lunch->Retro->Presentation->Benefits->SuperScrum and I wasn’t able to make much progress.

I’ll be available on Slack if needed.

Awesome. This is “clear, concise and compelling”, my highest praise for communication. This email succinctly recognizes the goal of the release, and declares the empowered action to bend our WFH policy to serve that goal.

Accountability without empowerment will lead to stress, burnout, and disengagement. Accountability that acknowledges flexible constraints, in this case our WFH policy, will yield results. Establishing criteria, constraints, and flexibilities around technical implementations is commonplace (this program must be correct, but doesn’t have to be fast) but this often does not extend to cultural endeavors, where criteria and constraints are often not explicit. For example, ‘unlimited vacation’ policies rely on implicit cultural corrections to be effective.

This is one of the tricks of designing an engineering/company culture: having no common understanding of acceptable behavior results in chaos while having strict policies eventually creates unsolvable constraints.

As Paul Petzoldt said, “Rules are for fools”. It’s up to you and your leadership style to help define the guidelines and flexibilities that will lead to happiness and throughput.

Check out this article about how AirBNB consciously avoided layering strict policies over time.