When do work-from-home arrangements make good sense?

When do work-from-home arrangements make good sense?

As promised, I return here to another debate that continues in the current press and on the Internet. Several weeks ago, I wrote that I would come back to this issue after gleaning some more insight from online forums, and from my colleagues and friends.

If the discussion of work-from-home continues, it is certainly in part because of the depth of emotion it seems to generate from both “camps”, and also because there are no clear answers. As I read, researched and questioned those around me, I often had the sense that each compelling argument on one side had an equally compelling counter-argument on the other.

By way of reminder, this controversy was set ablaze by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to require employee presence in company offices. On various blogs, websites and magazines, this new policy has been widely criticized. A great many people seem disappointed that Yahoo is not taking on the role of trend setter.
As a “new economy” company with many technical workers, the logic goes, they should be more flexible and enlightened about the needs and desires of their workforce. Others comment that they would have thought a young woman CEO like Mayer would be more sensitive to matters of balancing work and family.

Certainly, some of the backlash around this new policy was exacerbated by Mayer’s personal situation. After all, here was a rich and glamorous CEO–a new mother who has her specially-designed nursery next to her office–ordering less well-off parents in the same company to leave their offspring in daycare and commute to the workplace.

Among those highly disappointed by Mayer’s stand is Lisa Belkin, Senior Columnist on Life, Work, and Family at The Huffington Post, who writes that the work-from-home ban is “the exact opposite of what CEOs should be doing”. To Belkin, a case-by-case approach–one where each job is analyzed to see if physical presence might increase an individual or a group’s effectiveness—would be more appropriate. As she states, “putting employees back into a box is not good for Yahoo! It is not good for workers. And it is very bad business.”

Forbes contributor Joel Kotkin expounds on Mayer’s “misstep” and states that in today’s world the expansion of telecommuting remains “unstoppable”. He cites examples such as IBM and Cisco, both of which have found that their telecommuters are effective at communicating and collaborating. In Cisco’s case, work-from-home arrangements have improved employee retention and also saved and save the company an estimated $277 million.

In fact, numerous studies do show an actual rise in productivity for most employees who are allowed to telecommute. And, ironically, an online Yahoo article from March 4 of this year sings the praises of telecommuting. (“Survey Shows Telecommuting Provides Better Work/Life Balance, Benefits Both Employees and Managers”). Specifically, this report highlights a survey of 150 employers of all sizes, conducted by the US-based office supply firm Staples. Among then findings:

–75 percent of business decision makers notice happier employees

–37 percent of employers report less absenteeism

–48 percent of remote workers say they are less stressed

Recently, Mayer acknowledged the results of recent studies about increased productivity for telecommuters, but she defended her move nonetheless. Addressing the “Great Place to Work” conference for human resources professionals in Los Angeles on April 18, she told the audience that while “people are more productive when they’re alone…they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”

In my corner of the world, I found it somewhat remarkable that there was relatively little endorsement of Mayer’s reasoning, at least among my colleagues and friends. Particularly, some people I know well, and who have written and taught about creative collaboration at work, came down on the side of giving people the freedom to come to an office at their discretion, whenever they feel the need to do so. In other words, don’t treat knowledge workers like children; just let them decide for themselves. The reason for my surprise at this reaction is that I would have expected these colleagues to emphasize that creativity is a social process, one where serendipitous encounters and face-to-face interaction play significant roles.

In spite of all the criticism, though, in the Yahoo case I feel we must be mindful of the context. By most accounts, Yahoo is a group in trouble, a one-time leader in its field that has become a something of a laggard. Thus, the policies of such highly successful enterprises as IBM or Cisco may not be so germane. Today, Yahoo is a company with a damaged culture, apparently one of relatively low energy and engagement. So, Mayer’s edict may be less about job or worker independence issues, and more about redefining a corporate culture.

As such, I tend to think that Mayer’s decision may be the right one. In my mind, I see it as difficult to fix a broken culture, and to create a great place to work, if the people are not there to co-create it.

1 Comment

  1. Alex 11 years ago

    As a full time working mother living in Switzerland, I was appalled by Mayer’s decision. Here are the elements that I’d like to raise:
    1) One important point makes this debate a hypocrisy: Mayer has a private nursery next to her own office – she doesn’t feel the burden she is imposing on her workers and yet feels completely justified in what she is doing. She would have been so much more credible if she had ordered for staff nurseries to be built on all Yahoo office site locations, thus providing the same luxuries to her staff as she has reserved for herself.
    2) “Bums on seats” does not lead to creativity. Many have cited that Mayer has taken this decision after having analysed the VPN logs of the telecommuters and concluded that they didn’t log on often enough. I’m not convinced that knowledge workers who are struggling with a work-life balance will be all the more creative just because they are physically in the office. I actually think that this decision will create an increased loss of productivity. This is because those workers – who previously didn’t have the opportunity to casually discuss social issues – are now forced to be around each other and will have more opportunities to whinge at the water cooler or smoking area about what is going on.
    3) I fully support your entourage who conclude that companies should not treat knowledge workers like children. I believe that either extreme in the “working from home” debate is noxious for a company – workers should be able to work from home some days, and should be expected to be in the office or in the presence of other employees on other days – when their work calls for it. Let professionals organise themselves as they know best.
    4) The study you cited above rings true for me. I have worked for five different companies in my 15 year professional career so far, and up till 12 months ago, I have always enjoyed the pleasure to work from home when I felt it best arranged my work-life balance. I completely recognise the points about employee happiness, absenteeism and stress raised in the Staples study. My current employer – which could be considered a tech company as part of the “new economy” – does not officially allow it’s SWISS employees to work from home. But my colleagues in other countries are allowed to work from home, on a case by case basis (in some instances it’s baked into the country HR policy). I have been lobbying for change within the Swiss entity for the last 12 months, to no avail so far – our top Swiss management just don’t “get it”. I am considering seeking alternative employment soon if this situation does not change for me in the near future. I think that other serious and trustworthy employees in my situation will soon do the same thing, leading to un-necessary employee attrition and a watered-down company culture.

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