So it seems that Working From Home has become a hot topic for discussion this week. The catalyst for putting the home office into the spotlight has been Yahoo's decision to abolish the companies work from home policy. This is coincidental for me as I started a post earlier this week about my personal experiences of remotely working with other people.
The concept of Working From Home (WFH), or telecommuting, has been around from as far back as the 1960's. A company named F International pioneered the concept, and the founder of that company, Dame Stephanie Shirley, stated that working at the office " was about the time you were present, rather than what you had achieved,” and that “Academics were predicting it [telecommuting] would become more acceptable.”
50 years on and I still don't think much has changed: at a place I used to work they insisted that you sign into the IM service and centrally managed the status so that you could not change it. This was because, as the manager freely admitted, that he wanted to make sure that you were at your desk. It didn't monitor whether you were working, or just Googling your name, your presence at your desk was monitored as an inaccurate metric that you were working.
So it's presence and not productivity that drives this decision forward, however the Yahoo memo mentions that “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings”. I do agree with this statement entirely; if I can get up off my seat and go speak to someone face to face we can make a decision on something in two minutes; across email, or IM, it could take longer. But there is a flip side to this; I tend to get a lot more done at home because there are far less distractions. Not every conversation at work brings with it “the best decision”; in fact, most of the time, I find that people ask me fairly inane and fatuous questions that they could find out for themselves if they weren't so lazy!
In light of Yahoo's apparently draconian decision, stats have been churned out by all media outlets to show that, on the contrary, productivity from workers who telecommute is far higher than office based workers. The most significant of these is that Telecommuting Workers are more likely to put in an extra 5-7 hours a week than an Office based worker. However, the Yahoo memo speaks of “quality”, not “putting more hours in”. Some projects fail not because of the lack of hours put in, but rather the failing quality. And I have to agree that working remotely from your colleagues in the long term results in a degradation of the quality of work. So once again, proving that you do “more” work does not prove that what you are doing has worth.
Then we must also consider the cost savings (or rather lack of) associated with this; apparently a company saves $11,000 a year on workers who telecommute, whilst the workers themselves save $2000 on commuting fairs and other miscellaneous costs. Certainly if I worked from home I'd be saving myself a fair bit as the price for a monthly travel-card in London is hideous! This saving though will be spent on utilities, plus another stat shows that telecommuters earn less and get lower pay rises, so maybe the benefit of one is abrogated by the other. w/r/t companies making a significant saving on telecommuters, this must be factored into Yahoo's decision, surely? This is purely conjecture, but maybe they have many empty, lighted, heated offices they just might as well fill up with telecommuters?
The new CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, used to work at Google, an outrageously successful company who allow “as few as possible” people to telecommute, so perhaps the shock and outrage is a little misguided. For me, I like the balance between occasionally telecommuting and being in the office; my office is not far from home, it's in the trendy West End of London and I get a good few of the London skyline through the window next to my desk, we have free tea and toast, and I've got a great machine under this desk with two large monitors. Some people don't have it so sweet though. And so I think if Yahoo want people to come into the office having been telecommuting all this time, they have to make the office an enticing place to be. Time will tell if yahoo's decision will prove to be a successful one, and it may be personally disastrous for some of the individuals affected and the best thing that ever happened to others.
Further reading, and facts gleamed for this blog post can be found here: