(By David Amerland)
“In work environments that see co-workers mingle and shoot the breeze around the water cooler, some real learning gets done. A lot of information exchange takes place, which allows the very same workers to increase their value to the organization. They’re able to tap into this undocumented flow of information and knowledge.“
If you give employees the right to telework, be careful!
The very technology that enables telecommuting and working from home could be destroying its value. Although productivity may increase in the short term, working from home may prevent your teams from working effectively.
When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sent a letter to all employees rescinding their right to work from home, gasps of shock were heard across the world—from Washington’s Bureau of Labor Statistics to Necker Island, Caribbean home office of Virgin boss, Richard Branson.
The Yahoo decision brought teleworking back into the spotlight for organizations and their staff. Towering above the should-they-shouldn’t-they debate was this unasked question:
Why don’t we all work from home? After all, this is the age of hyperconnectivity, always-on devices, and high bandwidth connections:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one in four of U.S. workers works from home, at least some of the time.
In the period 2005—2011, U.S. teleworking grew 73%.
The Telework Research Network reports that teleworking programs increase productivity and employee satisfaction,
Yet company bosses are busy renting more office space. Why?
Command And Control
The intuitive answer would be that many companies worry about losing control of their employees. Teleworkers frequently back this perception by citing difficulties in performance reviews, when compared to their office-based peers.
There may be some truth to these, but neither is the full story.
Yes, remote workers may indeed be more carefree, happier and productive, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for their companies. A company is more than just the work that needs to be done, plus the workers who are there to do it.
A healthy organization has a culture that allows the sharing of values and ideas, the formation of a corporate identity, and the sense of competitive urgency that allows a company to be agile and innovative.
However, working from home can fail to fire up remote workers in the same way as a shared company environment. As a result, companies suffer—despite the increases in productivity and staff morale that come with teleworking.
The Case Against Teleworking
While Yahoo raised eyebrows with its decision, resistance to teleworking comes from companies that would normally be expected to support it.
Google workers, for instance, are brought into Mountain View on a free wi-fi enabled bus, and they’re encouraged to spend up to 20% of their time on projects other than their own work. Yet when it comes to working from home, the company line is to keep it to the barest minimum, unless it involves putting in extra hours after leaving the office.
When even hyperconnected tech companies that want you to take time off work, at work, frown on working remotely, the suggestion that it’s all about controlling employees seems to stand on shaky ground.
Creativity And Institutional Memory
Ultimately a company is only as good as its people. The value of each worker centers on the knowledge they have and the knowledge they can gain.
In work environments that see co-workers mingle and shoot the breeze around the water cooler, some real learning gets done. A lot of information exchange takes place, which allows the very same workers to increase their value to the organization. They’re able to tap into this undocumented flow of information and knowledge.
Marissa Mayer’s oft-cited letter to Yahoo employees stated:
“We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”
(Emphasis mine.) She wasn’t referring so much to the quality of work done as to the qualities that employees bring to a company when they get together around the water cooler and talk shop.
She probably learned this while at Google. It’s a sentiment echoed by Google’s CFO, Patrick Pichette. In an interview with Australian journalist Ben Grubb, he explained Google’s counterintuitive anti-teleworking stance:
“There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking, “What do you think of this?”
Magical or not, the fact remains that teleworking generally doesn’t work well, because corporations still haven’t solved the issues of remote learning, knowledge sharing, or firing up ideas. If that “magic” is to happen, you still need office face-time.
The Bottom Line
As technological change accelerates and marketplace pressures intensify, companies need to become ever more agile and innovative, just to keep up.
Paradoxically, the very technology that made teleworking a real option is now conspiring to keep workers in the office.
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”