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.