There’s currently a firestorm taking place on the internet in the wake of Yahoo!‘s recent policy change which will require most of its telecommuting workers to show up in the office regularly. While the responses to the new policy have included a mixture of praise and criticism, some of the critiques are quite telling.
Richard Branson, Virgin’s CEO, who has a penchant for sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong, chided Yahoo!’s decision, noting:
To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision. It is the art of delegation, which has served Virgin and many other companies well over the years.
We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they at their desk or in their kitchen.
CNN reports similar comments from others to the effect that the policy doesn’t necessarily boost creativity, creates an atmosphere of mistrust, and adds the risk that top performers will go elsewhere.
What are we to make of this?
Initially, I’ll note that it may seem quite odd that this has happened first in the context of a Silicon Valley high tech company, since these are entities that are generally viewed as having the most “enlightened” and “progressive” work environments on the planet — yet I think that this is also a wide false perception, for reasons I will explain shortly. It may also seem surprising that this has happened most undoubtedly at the direction of Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s CEO since July 2012, especially given that Mayer made a news splash when she have birth to her first child last September. Yet this is also based on a false perception, in my view.
I have a bit of a broader view on this.
Since I entered the U.S. corporate workforce in the early 1990s, I have seen the tide on workplace mores and flexibility ebb and flow. In the late 1990s, there was a shift in much of suburban corporate America to “business casual” in light of the bajillions of dollars kids in flip-flops were then making from the IPOs of tech start-ups, many of whom never actually turned a profit. These newly rich kids were famously dressed at work in t-shirts and shorts and were as casual as can be — something which made the rest of corporate America feel not only jealous, but also relatively stuffy. So along came casual office clothing, and for a few years we had a kind of sartorial chaos at work, because people had relatively little guidance as to how they should now dress for work — many workers previously had work attire, which they might also wear to church or to a more dressy social occasion, and non-work attire, much of which was not appropriate for the office at all (for men and women alike, albeit in predictably different ways). Eventually after a few years this was reined in, with new policies about what kinds of clothing were, and were not, acceptable for the office, and people basically created an intermediate wardrobe of “corporate casual” clothing that was more dressy than what they would wear doing errands on Saturday, but less dressy than they were wearing to work in 1992. This has now generally lead to a new equilibrium on this issue, as the excesses have settled out.
I’ve seen similar ebbs and flows with the telecommuting issue. When it first became feasible for large numbers of workers to telecommute due to widespread high-speed broadband internet access, coupled with various technological infrastructures that companies were creating to help their staff when on business travel, we saw a relatively large number of people trying to establish this as an “alternative work arrangement”. Since that time, it has been hemmed in to a large degree by most companies I have seen that are above a certain size, for quite substantive reasons in my view. Perhaps we are now going to approach a new equilibrium on this issue in a similar way that we did for the sartorial one.
In terms of the substance, the attraction of telecommuting for the worker is obvious. When telecommuting, one realizes certain efficiencies — an obvious one is the avoidance of commuting time, which in major metropolitan areas of the U.S. is a very significant chunk of time (including places like Silicon Valley). Another efficiency is less morning “prep time” — you can, in theory, begin work in your PJ’s and so on, which is more efficient than the full prep one would have when preparing to go into the office. Another benefit is the lack of workers putting in “face time” – appearing to be productive by spending longer than average hours at the office while actually being less productive per hour overall. Yet another is the feeling of freedom and responsibility provided by not having the boss eyeballing the worker a few times a day, something which provides a morale boost for *some* workers.
Given these benefits, then, what is the issue? Shouldn’t this be expanded, if there are so many benefits to it, rather than curtailed? The problems that arise from telecommuting stem from a few basic areas. The first is that working teams actually do coalesce better, and innovate better, when they are working together in person. It is very hard to maintain the kind of close, personal relationships with members of a team (a product team or even a business unit management team) when the primary way people communicate with each other is over VOIP or net meeting or what have you. The level of bonding in terms of team formation, which impacts the level of trust and collaboration among team members, is not comparable. With too many people telecommuting, this process is simply impeded. As it turns out, human beings, being physical/social beings, work better together when they are actually together physically as compared to being disembodied voices or images on a computer screen. (** — see below)
A second draw-back to telecommuting is that while it may promote efficiency in various ways, in the case of many office positions, it may not promote productivity. This is very job dependent. There are some jobs where productivity is easier to measure. If you are writing code, or copy, and you are basically producing a certain amount against a specific deadline, it’s true that productivity is not lost by performing this work remotely. If, however, the job is more diverse, and consists of some tasks which are very measurable in terms of productivity and others which are not, there is a risk — and one which materializes in many cases — that the less measurable stuff will not get done in as productive a way if the worker is working from home. This is because home, while having its efficiencies, also has a relatively huge number of distractions as compared to the workplace. Telecommuters tend to be very good at getting the big stuff done — the stuff that is measurable and deadlined and so on. They tend to be less good at the rest of what their time would have been devoted to in the office simply because there are fewer distractions and “other things to do”.
Which leads to the third problem, and that is that not all workers are well suited to this kind of freedom and responsibility. Some people really are very entrepreneurial and highly self-motivated. These tend to be the best telecommuters, because their productivity does not tend to drop off when it comes to things other than the big, measurable deliverables. Others, however, perhaps most workers, are not so well suited to this, and will generally work less than they would if they were working in an office environment where they were surrounded by other workers who were working in a focused way for long hours on a daily basis. Peer pressure is key for *many* people, and can work to enhance productivity by creating a productive work environment and atmosphere that generates a positive feedback loop for all of the workers (or at least weeds out, eventually, the slackers who are not very good at disguising their slacking — something which is much easier to do if you are telecommuting). People are generally quick to tout the efficiencies of working from home, but at its base this often involves spending less focused time working, and perhaps spreading out work over the course of an entire day in a way that the worker prefers, rather than focused productivity together with other workers.
That brings me to my fourth problem, which is more of a broader work culture issue than one for a specific company or enterprise. The culture of telecommuting has led to the development of the 18-hour work day for most workers above a certain pay grade. This is because telecommuters tend, as noted above, to spread their work to hours of the day when they want to do it, and to compensate for their lack of office presence by being virtually present whenever needed. This creates a corporate culture, however, for the entirety of the workforce above a certain paygrade, whether they are telecommuting or not. So you have the telecommuters, on the one hand, who are open to doing conference calls at 830pm after they are done with bathing their kids, rather than at 4pm when they are picking them up from school, which then means that the non-telecommuters simply work on something else at 4pm and then hop on the call themselves when they are home at 830pm — something they would not have to do if everyone were in the office at 4pm and available to do the call then. A counterargument is that this represents actual increased productivity across the board — but that’s an illusion, because as we can see, the telecommuter has simply moved their time around to suit their schedule, while the non-telecommuter has stapled this additional time onto an already full day at the office.
Which brings me to my final point — equity. Telecommuting is often touted as a way to improve worker morale — after all, almost everyone likes working from home (for the reasons I outline above — you have more flexibility, avoid commuting, and often work a bit less at least during the standard workday). However, it can actually create morale issues at the workplace. The issue generally arises from the reality that not all jobs are suitable for telecommuting. Typically, telecommuting is best suited to some types of “knowledge worker” jobs — the type of job for which many or most of its tasking can, in theory, be performed anywhere as long as the worker has access to a computer and a phone. In a corporate office space, however, there are many jobs that are not like that. This includes, in particular, virtually all of the support jobs — assistants, infrastructure, facilities management, etc. What can happen — and which I personally have seen happen — is that the knowledge workers start asking for, and getting, more flexibility in terms of telecommuting, and this eventually creates a resentment among the other workers who have jobs that can’t really be performed from home. So while it can boost the morale of the workers who are telecommuting themselves, it can at the same time lead to morale issues among those workers who cannot telecommute. Now, one may not consider this a big deal if one believes that the latter are “more easily replaced” and therefore not a big deal if they leave due to poor morale, but if this starts to happen on a more significant scale, the replacement cost can very much be a big deal, and the level of central support needed for the knowledge workers to perform their own tasks can slip to the point of creating an issue for the overall mission. In addition, and this is a key point, telecommuting tends to be given to some workers and not others, even among the knowledge workers. This also leads to resentment building over time among those non-telecommuting people for the reasons I have mentioned above. So while telecommuting may raise the morale of *some* workers (namely the telecommuters), the impact on overall morale of employees is much more mixed, and in many cases negative over the course of time due to people feeling like they are not being treated as well as others.
For all of these reasons, I am not surprised that this change has been made by a high-tech company in Silicon Valley, or by a working parent CEO like Marissa Mayer.
In the tech world, innovation is king, and innovation happens when workers collaborate and meet in person. There are numerous enterprise studies that back this up. While allowing employees to telecommute makes them more individually happy, perhaps, it also prevents the kind of hotbed of collaborative working that characterizes the typical start-up company which is focused on innovating. For example, one may recall the fictionalized presentation in the 2010 film “The Social Network” of how the founders of Facebook were collaborating together as they were working to code and structure their website — together in one room, for long hours, batting ideas around and collaborating. In theory, of course, all of that could have happened over the phone, VOIP or net meeting software — but in practice, it generally doesn’t, because it’s the informal interactions among people who are physically proximate to each other that really make the difference. Yahoo! has been mismanaged for quite some time, and has been outplayed by its competitors, and their innovation, in their competitive space for quite some time. Something was needed to boost innovation, and likely this policy change is an effort in that direction.
Second, the fact that Mayer is now a working parent who works really hard at her job is likely something that militated against the existing policy, rather than for it. Mayer is an example of a non-telecommuting worker (she can’t really do her job telecommuting), who likely has less interest in the morale, efficiency, and balance reasons that other workers offer in support of widespread telecommuting. That isn’t currently her personal approach, I am guessing, and so she has less sympathy for it as an approach in general. She may even have been one of the workers in her previous positions where she questioned the usefulness of widespread telecommuting, either because she was telecommuting herself, or was one of the non-telecommuting workers. But I find her support for this policy change very unsurprising given her current position and working style.
In closing, I’ll admit that I like telecommuting as much as anyone else. I like the flexibility and the comfort of it as compared to commuting and face time and office nonsense. And I certainly think that telecommuting should continue to be made broadly available on a day basis for people who may need to do it on a given day because they are sick, or have a sick child, or have an unavoidable home-based appointment or what have you — in lieu of losing an entire day of productivity for these workers, it’s much better to give them the chance to work from home during these kinds of days. However, as a broad policy and a permanent way of working for a certain subclass of workers it can be a worse idea than it seems to be at first blush, for a wide variety of relatively complex reasons. I think it is long past time that the widespread use of this practice be re-examined, and brought back into line so that it can be made available as an option to increase productivity on a day-need basis, when people have a specific, non-recurring need for the flexibility, rather than a long-term, permanent work arrangement. In that way, we can use the technology more positively without disrupting the usefulness of daily, personal office interactions, and all they add to the company as a whole, apart from the preferences of specific workers.
** — As a side note, this is also one reason why so many of the larger multinationals have approached a regionalization strategy rather than trying to manage operations from one central location — they found that doing the latter meant that the actual operations team was communicating a lot with the team leaders over technology and not in person, while a huge amount of money and time was being spent flying back to the central location from time to time to maintain at least some degree of personal relationships with senior management. By “pushing down” these layers to regional structures, maintaining the kinds of interpersonal relationships required to create and maintain cohesive team structures is made less daunting, more achievable, and less costly.