Work from home – a balanced view

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, has opened up a huge debate on the merits of working from home. With her announcement to curtail the policy for Yahoo! employees, a plethora of articles applauding or lampooning the decision have hit the print media and airwaves. As I type this, I am doing so from my work-from-home laptop. So, when I am not traveling, I work from home. Yet, if I did not travel and meet with people throughout the week on my job, I would miss the face-to-face interaction. Working from home is not for everyone and it is not for every time.

At the heart of the decision is Mayer’s concern that Yahoo! is getting out-innovated. You see, Yahoo! is in trouble and must do something. Forbes Magazine did an interesting article back in August, 2012 on Apple’s success as an innovator over time making an interesting observation. Apple spends far less than major competitors with its Research & Development budget as a percent of sales. Apple is at 2% of sales, where Microsoft and Intel are at 13% and 15% of sales, respectively. This seems strange as Apple is equally or better known for its innovation. They key is Steve Jobs had almost all of his innovative thought leaders together in one place.

Jobs was a big advocate of face-to-face meetings. In his biography, he noted “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say, ‘wow’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”  Before he died, Jobs even drew out the currently being built headquarters to facilitate more of these random interactions. Former employees, analysts and economists argue that this is a key reason for Apple’s success. By having more face-to-face interactions, their products and services work well together. An Apple executive said, “Decision-making is faster, management can be more involved, and you get better integrated products.”

And, it is not just Apple. In Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s book “How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented” they note that having the innovators close to the leaders and some manufacturing is where the greatest innovations can occur. In their mind, having some manufacturing close by is good, as often the best process improvements come from the floor. Yahoo! feels the need to emulate that model.

Can that model be replicated when people work from home? For global companies, they do interface from sites remote to each other. They may be in office sites or they could be people who reside in remote locations and work from home. So, there is evidence that creativity can be shared without being in the same room. Yet, for cutting edge jobs where something very new is being developed, can it be replicated at the same level?  Apple has come to the conclusion it cannot. This is where I come to a more balanced view. It has to work for the employer as well as the employee.

I think people can work from home, but it may not be at all times. In my job, if I only worked from home, I would not be nearly as effective. Even with Skype or videoconferencing, it is hard to read body language. So, when someone does not understand something, you need to be present to pick up on that. Oftentimes, I would attend client meetings in person, if I had colleagues on the phone, for that very reason.

From an employer’s standpoint, working from home is harder to manage. Truth be told, most employers rightfully have the following policy and belief. If you are not performing at an acceptable level at work, why would you believe that you can work better from home? So, if you are a “partially meets” performer, your request to work from home will be denied. The workers from home have to be extra diligent as well to be successful. If they weren’t diligent at work, they will likely not be diligent at home. The same could be said about people who try to take online educaation courses. Many fail, as you have to be extra diligent to stay on top of things and to make sure you understand issues.

With all of that said, the one constant issue that crosses all generations on employee satisfaction is work-life balance. So, while harder to manage, in so doing, you are giving flexibility to employees who will be more inclined to stay with you longer. So, retention can be improved. Let’s face it, many work for Apple to stay abreast of some of the most cutting edge tools. Yet, if your company is not Apple, would you be harming yourself by not having flexible work schedules which permit some of your folks to work from home some or all of the time?

This is one area that deserves a study of metrics around productivity, retention, and long-term shareholder value creation on an employer-by-employer basis. It may not be right for every industry or every job. In fact, there are many jobs where they cannot be done from home. Some who cannot would say it is unfair that their job does not let them. To me, here is where a cadre of flexible schedule approaches make sense. So, maybe someone can have a compressed work week with four ten-hour days. Or, some could work from seven to three each day due to taking care of kids after school. Some hospitals have what is called the Baylor schedule for nurses patterned after the Baylor University Medical Center. Nurses work two twelve-hour weekend days and get paid time and a half.

My thrust is employees desire work life balance. If you provide constructive ways that are win-win for the employee and employer, then both will benefit. So, while it is harder to manage and may not be for every company, every job or every person, find ways for it to make sense and clearly define them. And, for those who do work from home, you owe it to your colleagues who cannot, to be as or more productive. Otherwise, it is unfair to them. So, as this issue is debated, note that it should not be an all or none debate as so often is done in the news. The answer is it depends. It has to work for both the employee and employer.

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14 thoughts on “Work from home – a balanced view

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write about this and help me make sense of it. I can see the value of face-to-face, as I find it valuable in my own current school situation. But there was a time when I found the lack of a flexible schedule at an old job very disappointing, and I felt forced out after having a baby because of a strict face-to-face policy. So Yahoo!’s new policy disappointed me somewhat, but I can now see its merits, and I like that you focused your discussion on work-life balance. That really is what’s important.

    • Thanks Emily. The key is the work-life, so we need to each figure out the best way to make it work. For some, it should be leaving work at a reasonable hour, while for others it is a tailored schedule. Take care, BTG

  2. I can’t speak about the business world, but I spent a month in California at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions years ago and cannot remember a more vital group of people. Being around them triggered creative juices I never knew I had. There’s something to be said about being with others who make you stretch and “brain-storming” sessions with bright people can be very productive.

  3. I agree with your conclusion, it depends. Creative collaboration is enhanced in face to face situations. In my last job I was not permitted to work from home despite all the technology being in place. I was given all sorts of lame excuses as to why not. I was not working at Apple or Google or similar and all I needed was a day here or there. In the end, it’s what tipped me to leave. Senior professionals deserve autonomy and trust. They generally wouldn’t have made it to the senior level if they didn’t perform. Sorry for the rant, but this is a topic close to my heart.

    • Thanks Judy. You have noted an even bigger issue. I see what you describe all too often. Companies develop or recruit senior people who know how to do their jobs. Then, they try to micromanage them stripping any enterpreneurial spirit from them. When you have a capable performer, management should provide tools and goals, but basically stay out of the way and ask how can we help you be successful rather than here is what you need to do. This is why I work with a small firm now, rather than a big one. The big one dictated my day too much and kept me from doing what our group felt was needed.

  4. There is a place for both options, and each option has its place. Nothing can replace the creative synergy that springs from interacting face to face, especially between open-minded thinkers. After brainstorming sessions like that, it’s often good to retreat into a hibernation and work though those ideas in private. Without distractions, one can focus on the task and run with it!

    I work with a coffee company in Guayaquil (ESCoffee) – The CEO, Miguel Rendon is a briliant highly-intelligent fast-thinking young man, and I often leave those meetings with wide-eyed wonder! He once asked me if I had suggestions of what he could do better, and I laughed and said, “Refrain from drinking coffee until after your morning staff meeting!’

    He has interns, usually from Europe, who are multi lingual, but I think that even a native Spanish speaker would have a hard time keeping up with his many thoughts and ideas. I marvel and look forward to watching him fly! After the meetings, we retreat to our various roles – the last time mine was working with an architect and visiting the building site for their new cafe/shop/gallery/offices AND roasting facility, all under one roof! we also worked on graphic art for labels and packaging. Then we worked on ideas for their section in the Duty Free/airport… and and and – it’s amazing to experience that high synergy within a group of beautiful people.

    In two weeks I will be returning, and I always look forward to those visits. Perhaps I should write about that next trip. If so, the writing would happen after I am quietly tucked away and working from home!

    • Z, I love to see great examples like this at work. Well said from experience. I am with Hugh, please do write about when you go back. Your point shows that it does not have to be an either/ or decision. It can be both. To your point, I compartmentalize work – if I know I will have 45 minutes between meetings or waiting on a child, I will throw it my folder to review at that time and place. I always have something to read with me. Many thanks for sharing, BTG

  5. As a manager at a past company, there were some great remote workers, but also abusers. In the worst case, a person owned and ran a horse ranch in northern Calif, about 150 miles from the company. She was paid a 6 figure salary for managing the change documentation process for new products. There was not one person in the company, except for her manager and his manager, who actually believed she worked anywhere near a full day; the consensus was more likely one or two hours max, based upon her output.

    With this widely held perception, and perception becomes reality over time, its not difficult to imagine the resentment of others in the company over this abusive situation.

    So, yes, there are good and bad sides to this story, but off site work has to be carefully managed and monitored for effectiveness and overall contributions.

  6. This is a topic close to my heart as I have worked at home for over 9 years. I can tell you that I am much more productive working at home than in the office. In the office there are way too many distractions! I met with a recruiter friend who works for a company that allows telecommuting and she was saying what a big mistake Yahoo and Best Buy have made in eliminating telecommuting. That they will start losing people as this form of working is very important to many people. Good post!! and I see others that I have missed that I need to come back and read….

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