Marissa Mayer and the Telecommuting Debate

It's the people, not the office.

When you think about work, you probably think of your office — or the morning commute, pre-work Starbucks run, water cooler conversation, even that office jerk that takes and then “forgets” to return your stapler. If you’re like most, you still work among cubicles and the corner office, but that image is giving way to a new workplace: one where you wake up, fire up the Keurig, then settle in front of your computer to log into work via e-mail, IM or Skype.

We’ve transformed into the sleepy-eyed, caffeine-fueled telecommuter, perpetually huddled over phones or computers. In the U.S., about one-in-five telecommute at least one day a week, according to the Bureau of Labor. But not everyone is a fan of the practice. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, for example, famously banned telework to boost morale, igniting a firestorm of debate over the effects of a mobile workplace.

Just how great, or harmful, is it? Best Buy shortly followed suit, forcing employers to re-examine what conditions lead to successful workforce, and the role you play in it.

After Mayer’s ban, everyone from industry experts to average Joes rushed to defend telecommuting. They knew, whether by intuition or experience, what many studies show: working from home, if done right, can boost productivity and performance, job satisfaction and an overall happiness in life, according to a Penn State researchers, as well as reduce stress over family conflicts and work-life balance.

Happier workers means happier offices and telecommuters often have better relationships with their supervisors, resulting in less turnover and reduced hiring and training costs. Those that telecommute don’t take as many sick days too, and the savings also extend to moving and office costs.

“Telecommuting has an overall beneficial effect because the arrangement provides employees with more control over how they do their work,” Ravi Gajendran, author of the study, told the American Psychological Association. “Autonomy is a major factor in worker satisfaction and this rings true in our analysis.”

So why would Mayer ban it then? Her reasoning: mobile work has a harmful effect on innovation. To push the aging Internet giant, she’s trying to tweak the culture to a place of collaboration. You can’t come up with ideas if nobody interacts.

Some experts, like San Francisco State University management professor John Sullivan, agree: people who work from home are less inventive — but they’re more productive. “If you want innovation, then you need interaction,” he told the New York Times. “If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.”

However, some cite Yahoo’s culture as the problem, not telecommuting itself. These critics say Mayer took a hard look at bloated operations and concluded people weren’t held accountable for their work. Yahoo’s problems, they say, stems not from its work-at-home policy, but from an organization that lost its way — with no clear mission, no drive to serve its customers and no cohesion or teamwork in office. Those problems run deeper than signing on from the office or at home.

Work from Home, Or Live in the Office?

Telecommuting has disadvantages for you as well. The truth is, mobile workers are more productive because they work longer hours. You’re not working from home; you’re living at the office. And that prolongs the workday, and intensifies demands put on you.

If you work from home, on average, you’ll put in six more hours than if you work at the office, according to a study by the Bureau of Labor. You’re more apt to work off-hours too, thanks to real-time communication on phones, e-mail and computers. You’ll also work more often when you’re sick or on vacation than if you go into the office. The result is a surge in productivity for employers.

But it’s easy to stress and burn out. While the office is rife with productivity-killing distractions — interrupting bosses, co-worker confabs, office gossip and politics — distractions at home are just as plentiful, whether in the form of kids, pets or piles of laundry.

So if you want to work from home successfully, you’ll need boundaries, not just with yourself and your boss, but also with spouses and children who often don’t understand that just because you work in your pajamas, doesn’t mean you’re available to take out the trash — you’re still at the office.

Telecommuters need to consider the long-term consequences, too. If you work from home, you won’t be promoted as often as in-office co-workers, even if you do better work and hit more performance goals, according to an MIT study. While working from home can help you avoid office politics and gossip, showing your face is what matters to climb the career ladder.

Fair or not, if you telecommute, you’ll want to put in some face-time at the office, at least if you want to see your name on a corner office one day.

But if you’re the boss, how do you know someone is a good fit for mobile work? Well, they have traits that characterize most good employees, actually — they’re self-motivated, self-directed, communicate well and hold themselves accountable to goals they set. A successful mobile workforce begins with hiring good employees, no matter what the arrangement.

A Need for Better Bosses

Bosses that manage a remote workplace often meet different demands. Gone is the stereotype of the boss in his office, feet up on the desk and leaning back in his chair as he watches his underlings scurry and carry out instructions deciphered from the company memo. Just as telecommuting can separate the good workers from the mediocre ones, it also exposes the strengths and weaknesses of managers and supervisors.

The debate thus far has focused on workers, but managers play a key role in successful workplaces, too. Managers often balk at telecommuting, citing concerns over a perceived loss of control and efficiency, but they often don’t realize it requires them to take a more active role to manage employees. To reap the benefits, they’ll need superb performance and project management skills to communicate well, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Many bosses, though, still practice the paternalistic “top-down” style of management that requires face-time, 9-to-5 and clocking in and out. And age and generation are reasons — older superiors aren’t often fluent in technology. As a result, while telecommuting has made gains in the U.S. workforce, bosses continue with business as usual.

Creating the Perfect Storm

Mayer sparked debates on the nature of work itself. What conditions create that perfect storm of productivity, innovation and motivation to help a business thrive? And where does telecommuting fit in? Does a company have to choose between innovation and productivity? And most importantly, are offices better than working at home?

In truth, telecommuting is here and growing. Four-in-five companies offer it to employees, and less than three percent are considering taking it away, according to recruiting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Blanket policies to ban telecommuting won’t hold up, since they go against federal regulations that require employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities.

In a rocky economy, it’s easy to say we need to return to old methods that worked in the “good ole’ days.” But any good business management tome will tell you: good workplaces begin with strong vision and values — and good employees and bosses who align with that. Yahoo was in trouble long before it announced the ban, and keeping its workers at the office is the first of more policy changes to come.

Overall, business and economic experts recognize that offices with some degree of autonomy — no matter what the industry or product — are the most productive and creative. Telecommuting plays a valuable role in offering employees a sense of control over their days and routines, but it’s neither the panacea for workplaces, nor the reason businesses falter.

Successful arrangements involve a mix of independence and connection — striking a balance between the collaboration that sparks ideas, but preserving the islands of uninterrupted time and attention to delve deep and get a lot done. Telecommuting is just part of a larger mosaic of policies that make up a successful workplace, but it’s an increasingly valuable one, if you and your boss know how to use it well.


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