Working from home…the way of the future, or a thing of the past?

Working from home…the way of the future, or a thing of the past?

The Wall Street Journal wrote recently that a debate is raging about tech companies and their “work from home” arrangements.  In fact, since Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer decided to end remote work at the company, reactions in the press and on blogs have generated considerable heat.

Numerous issues and arguments are surfacing, and it may be a debate that will continue for quite a while. Online, some people are commenting that the basic issue is the tension between workers’ need for flexibility and need for visibility. While telecommuting may have significant practical advantages for the individual worker, the perception in many companies is that one needs to participate in the office environment for purposes of career advancement.

Proponents of work from home often raise the issue of talent recruitment and retention, arguing that some of the most highly skilled knowledge workers prefer flexible work arrangements. At the same time, many of the managers I speak with (face-to-face!) say that working in an office makes more and more sense these days, given a greater emphasis in most organizations on group learning, project work, and collaboration.

Is it a question of productivity? According to some articles I have read since the recent debate began, studies have shown that workers may be more productive from home. But, there is also a question about how we define productivity. While an individual may be more “productive” away from the worksite, when judged solely in terms of tasks accomplished each day, others would argue that true group productivity is harder to measure, because it is about more than just tasks. Creativity and innovation, for example, are often social phenomena.

An article in the March 11 edition of USA Today cites a Harris Poll taken Feb. 26 to March 4, which found that a third of American workers who are not self-employed say they spend some time during normal business hours working from home. While the poll generally reflected approval of telecommuting, it also raises some doubts. For example, more than four in five workers say that working together in an office promotes team camaraderie, that some of the best ideas and decisions can come from impromptu, in-person meetings and discussions, and that working in an office improves communication and collaboration.

Though I have never done a formal study, I have seen and heard a lot of evidence, mostly anecdotal, that chance encounters–all types of unplanned social interaction–are often at the root of the best engineering, marketing, and management practices in companies.

A Microsoft project manager once told me that many of his best ideas came from interacting with colleagues in the lunchroom. In the 1990s, I did a series of extensive interviews at Hewlett-Packard. Among those I spoke with was the director of the internal network at a large European site, who told me that some of the most important work he did consisted of listening and “politicking” around the coffee machine. In 2012, I had opportunities to visit–either as a speaker or invited guest–a number of the world’s hottest tech companies, including Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn. In each case, I was struck by the importance of human interaction in creating environments of camaraderie and idea sharing.

I find this an interesting topic for discussion, and I admit to having no clear answers. Are work-from-afar arrangements, aided by increasingly sophisticated technology, the way of the future? Or, will they be a thing of the past, as companies put increased emphasis on communication, collaboration, and group creativity? Or better still, will enlightened organizations find some middle ground, giving flexibility in certain situations while requiring presence in others?

Let me know what you think

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