Last week, CEO Marissa Mayer shook up the business world by announcing that Yahoo would stop allowing employees to work at home after June. In recent years, more workers have begun to telecommute and outsourcing to off-site contractors has become commonplace, so this decision was startling, especially from an internet company. There has been a tremendous push-back in the news and among bloggers and it will be interesting to see the eventual results of her initiative.
The Advantages of Telecommuting
The development of digital technologies have made it increasingly feasible for office work to be completed off site. As it has become possible to do research, communicate information, and produce deliverables online, and commutes have become longer, more employees have lobbied to send it in rather than coming to the office. The convenience of being at home to perform the job functions and still be able to feed the dog, do the laundry, and answer the door has been very appealing to many workers. The company decreases overhead including office space and is able to outsource more work to free-lancers so the costs of insurance, payroll taxes, retirement benefits, etc. can be minimized.
The employer has a range of concerns about telecommuting and the employee does too. An excellent overview of the issues is available in the Data Center Journal.
Commentator Jeff Clark explains that while some employees are happier and extremely industrious at home, others require the interactions and structure of a common office space. Workers personalities and the kind of work being performed are critically important to the outcome of the arrangement.
It is interesting that the news stories and the commentators seem to all be looking at the issue from the employee’s perspective. They point out that it is a hardship for employees to be away from home. They suggest that any productivity issues with the arrangement result from failures of management in selecting and supervising employees.
It is implied that employees who prefer to be in the office lack personal time management skills or have high social needs and selecting more autonomous workers would solve those problems.
I believe that increased telecommuting resulted mostly from companies’ desires to reduce overhead as the economy contracted and new technologies made remote work possible. The increased competition for every job allowed employers to outsource work and reduce salaries, eliminate benefits and training costs, and let workers provide their own infrastructural support (computers, office space, parking, etc.). It became even cheaper when much of the work began to be subcontracted to people like me. While free-lancers do not typically have the same incomes and stability they enjoyed as employees, many do enjoy the conveniences of their situation.
Disadvantages of Telecommuting for an Employee
Without the easy accessibility of being in the same place to have casual interactions, every communication must be direct and intentional. Much of the information that is essential to performance is not imparted that way. Being able to pop into a nearby office or ask a spur-of-the-moment question can immensely speed up functional processes, provide answers to unconsidered issues, and prompt creative responses to impending problems.
2. Sense of isolation:
Camaraderie is important for teamwork and most projects require collaboration. Personal relationships develop through interaction and digital communications do not engender the loyalty and trust that face-to-face exchanges do.
3. Time management:
Yes, there are many people in the workplace who waste time, but it is easier to be very inefficient at home while being paid. Social media, television, personal calls, family responsibilities, housework, etc. all tend to distract workers.
4. Access to resources:
Companies routinely provide computers, printers, programs, internet services, and support personnel in the office. At home much of that becomes the responsibility of the employee.
“Out of sight, out of mind.” Studies routinely show that when the employee is less visible, they are more unlikely to be considered for promotion and plum assignments. No matter how their good their work is, supervisors have a hard time sponsoring the advancement of subordinates they don’t really know.
Disadvantages of Telecommuting for the Employer
Management best-practices recommend that supervisors interact frequently in both structured and informal ways with their teams. This improves their ability to assess performance, adjudicate issues, and establish loyalty and trust. Relying on technology (electronics, telephones, etc.) disrupts all but purposeful interactions and gives each contact more relative importance which can result in immoderate reactions on all sides.
Without supervision, businesses cannot assure that employees will consistently behave in ways that are in keeping with company regulations, processes, and values. The management rule for interactions is “Trust, but Verify.” That is less possible when work is being done remotely. Another aphorism, “While the Cat’s Away, the Mice Will Play” can also be true. As I explained in a recent post about workplace ethics, most people fudge a little when they think no one will know. Working at home increases that probability.
2. Incubation of ideas (creativity, innovation)
It is true that intentional brainstorming does not work and problem solving does involve research and deliberation, but it also requires sharing. As explained in a New Yorker article called “Groupthink,”
and as Steve Jobs knew, innovation is fostered when workers have frequent spontaneous interactions with a broad range of people. Working from home isolates workers
3. Recognition of Talent
It is more difficult to know workers who are not physically present. That means that the employer lacks information about how the employee responds interpersonally. Assessments of people should include the quality of output, timelines, but also their people skills. An inability to observe behavior directly makes it more difficult to make good decisions about how to allocate resources.
If you have read my blog for a while you will notice that I avoid all-or-nothing pronouncements because few things are totally one way or another. I do not believe that it is necessary for everyone to be in the office all the time. I do think that it is better for everyone when most people are there most of the time during regular hours. Some tasks are solitary and mundane and lend themselves to telecommuting. People travel, have health issues, and have family emergencies that should be accommodated. When the employer openly makes occasional adjustments it builds employee loyalty across the organization.
There is always resistance to policy changes. Yahoo surely anticipated that. If they tough it out, it will probably take a couple of years to see significant advantages from requiring employees to be on site. Yahoo will lose some employees and will continue to be widely criticized. If the company hires good people, gives them the necessary tools and authority and encourages them to take risks, this strategy will allow them to be successful.