Jennifer Glass In Defense of Telecommuting

It’s About the Work, Not the Office

by Jennifer Glass

(This article was originally published in the New York Times. The original version can be read here.)

THE recent decision by Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, to eliminate telecommuting for all workers brings her company back in line with most of corporate America, where working from home is more illusion than reality. Although many — some estimate most — American jobs could successfully be performed at home, only roughly 16 percent of American employees actually telecommute in any given year. And that figure is reached only by using a very generous definition of telecommuting — working from home at least one hour per week.

The idea behind the Yahoo announcement, as well as a more limited announcement from Best Buy this week that will add restrictions to its telecommuting policy, was that bringing workers back to the office would lead to greater collaboration and innovation. This is despite numerous studies showing that telecommuting workers are more productive than those working on-site.

Yet a work force culture based on long hours at the office with little regard for family or community does not inevitably lead to strong productivity or innovation. Two outdated ideas seem to underlie the Yahoo decision: first, that tech companies can still operate like the small groups of 20-something engineers that founded them; and second, the most old-fashioned of all, that companies get the most out of their employees by limiting their autonomy.

Consider the reality of telecommuting in the United States: most of the telecommuting hours put in by managers and professionals occur after they have worked at least 40 hours at the office. For them, working from home means checking e-mail, returning calls and writing reports during evenings, weekends and vacations.

I suspect Yahoo is not keen on eradicating that type of telecommuting, which increases work hours and squeezes ever greater productivity from workers. Its change was aimed at eliminating the type of telecommuting that substitutes for time spent at the office and that gives employees the opportunity to avoid long commutes and design their work hours around family or community obligations.

Why are companies so leery of this type of flexibility? Managers are tempted to use “face time” in the office as the de facto measurement of commitment and productivity. They are often suspicious about employees who work out of sight, believing they will shirk or drift if not under constant supervision. As a result, telecommuting is often viewed as a perk to be handed out after employees have proved their worth.

But another important reason may be the difficulty of developing reliable metrics to measure the performances of employees who work at home, especially when they are involved in team projects. We tend to attribute quality work to those we see all the time and with whom we discuss work performance and accomplishments.

This belief may be especially strong at tech companies, whose heady early days of creative innovation suggested that living at the office with your young peers produced the fastest results. What we tend to forget is that many unsuccessful tech companies also started that way, and that even the successful ones eventually had to grow beyond the boundaries of a group of friends pulling all-nighters of inventive exploration, getting a new platform or search architecture to work.

After all, Yahoo now has 14,000 employees — it’s hard to imagine that all of them have a mission to innovate and create new processes and products. These are customer service representatives, technical repair workers. Does Yahoo really want them creatively innovating, going off script with untested solutions?

Regardless, employees, creative or not, get older, marry, bear children, watch their parents grow infirm, and want lives outside the workplace. And despite companies’ best efforts to replace family and simulate home life by providing cafeterias, game rooms and concierge services for dry cleaning, most people eventually learn the hard way that companies will not care for you when times are hard; they will cut your pay or forgo your 401(k) match in economic downturns, and will dispose of you when you become ill or disabled. As Robert Frost reminds us, home is the place where they have to take you in. Work is not that place.

In the last week, I have heard a number of claims that research supports the idea that workers on-site are more innovative than those who work from home. I remain skeptical. The notion that impromptu conversations with colleagues in the cafeteria are the core of innovation seems a bit simplistic; in my experience, they are just as likely to produce talk of better jobs at competing firms or last night’s “American Idol” winner. Besides, much of this “research” simply shows that workers who collaborate with others in loose networks generate better ideas. It doesn’t suggest that the best way to create new products and services is by isolating your employees in the silo of a single location.

It is no coincidence that some of the most successful engines of innovation in our economy are our great research universities. Yet I have never seen a single university administrator try to corral faculty members into more face time at the office. Instead, researchers are encouraged to travel to conferences to meet with peers and find out the latest developments in their fields, and to use technology to maintain contact with a web of associates around the globe who can be mustered on demand for consultation and support.

To give one small example, two of my colleagues, at Cornell University, a demographer and geographer, recently came up with the idea for a study to improve the retention of women working in science while chatting during their children’s after-school swim lessons. Even within Cornell, stuck in their respective units, they might never have met. The logic that insists that the best new ideas come from staying within one’s company walls as long as possible sounds like a return to the corporate groupthink of an earlier era.

Were there other ways to foster collaboration within Yahoo? Of course. Ms. Mayer could have insisted on core work hours or days for all employees, when everyone works on-site. Or Yahoo could have developed collaborative work spaces off-site, closer to the neighborhoods where telecommuting employees live, to provide them with opportunities to connect to others doing similar work. Large screens to Skype in telecommuting team members for daily or weekly meetings could be a routine part of every group space. Above all, managers could focus on a results-oriented system of evaluation for all employees, telecommuting or not. This sends the message that outcomes are more important than location or hours on the job.

If the Dilbertization of Yahoo actually improves innovation, I’ll change my tune. But companies like Yahoo will not get more out of their employees by watching them like hawks and monitoring their every move. Nor can they recreate the dynamism of their founding moment by trying to return to a perpetual organizational adolescence. The 37-year-old Ms. Mayer, new mother, may have yet to learn that.

Jennifer Glass is a professor of sociology and senior researcher in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

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