Monday, March 4, 2013

Telecommuting and the Modern Workplace--The Empire Strikes Back

Hailed as a significant move forward for American workers, the technology that enabled telecommuting, and specifically, working from home, has turned out to be something less of a panacea than originally thought. My personal experience with telecommuting, and with clients that have formally embraced it, is pretty mixed. While it's great for situations where people can't get into the office (in Chicago, that's almost always weather-related), or as a short-term accommodation for a disabling condition, most companies find that people who telecommute regularly tend to be less productive, and make fewer contributions to their work group.

The reasons for this are fairly straightforward-in virtually all telecommuting situations, it is simply not possible to focus on work to the same extent as it is at the office. Truly effective telecommuting requires the establishment of a virtual office, free of outside distractions.  Most people simply don't have the financial capability to set up a workplace in their house that mimics the office environment. For people with children at home (and let's face it, a major appeal of telecommuting is that it allows parents to be in the same house with their kids), effective telecommuting requires childcare during the workday.  If you have to spend money on a nanny, you might as well go into work.

Moreover, being away from the office has demonstrable group dynamic costs. There is something to be said for a basic workplace presence, where people can interact with you directly, brainstorm with you, and where seeing your face might cause someone to remember that they need to call you about that special initiative. A personal presence allows people to communicate "off the record", to float ideas without putting them into the office e-mail network, for example.

All of this was apparently driven home to the Yahoo CEO, particularly when she looked out her office window at 5 PM and saw a mostly empty parking lot. She realized, as many of my clients have, that the casual attitude towards coming to work led to a casual attitude about work. Although she's being pilloried by feminists and other moms-at-work type groups, her decision sends the right message-flexible work arrangements like this are a privilege, not a right. If you want to be given these privileges, you need to make the company profitable first.

UPDATE:  There have been discussions as to whether the company policy expressed by Yahoo is illegal. My take on this is that as long as Yahoo does not refuse to consider telecommuting as an accommodation for people with disabling conditions, then it is within its employer rights to dial out telecommuting as an option for its workforce. But I'm betting there are some challenges to the decision.

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