The Work From Home Problem

by | Tech Employment

One of the perks that many companies use to lure potential new employees is the benefit of telecommuting.

On the surface, it’s an easy sell for many companies because they know many people like the idea of working from home.

How Employees Benefit from Work From Home Policies

Perhaps the biggest draws of working from home are the work-life balance benefits.

For instance, you don’t have to fight traffic driving to and from work. For those that take public transportation, you no longer have to worry about missing your bus or train, or getting stranded in the middle of a commute because it broke down. And of course, there are the financial savings of not paying for gas, insurance, public transportation passes, or parking expenses if you work inside a large metropolitan city. 

There are the savings of not having to eat out during lunchtime. Sure, you could bring your own, but working from home even saves you the effort of packing a lunch. 

For parents, working from home is a HUGE employee perk. When you can work from home and take care of your not-yet-school age children, you have the obvious peace of mind of knowing they’re under your direct supervision. And of course, huge cost savings of not paying for daycare and babysitters.

Are There Technical Challenges to Working from Home?

From a technology perspective, the logistical challenges of not working in the office have been mostly solved. Conferencing software like WebEx allows you to conduct or join meetings from home and even see and hear all the other meeting attendees.

Then, of course, there’s VPN (Virtual Private Network) software that enables you to connect to your corporate network from home and use your corporate e-mail, instant messaging software, internal corporate wikis and access to all internal corporate servers.

There are really no major technology barriers that hamper your ability as a company employee, from doing your work from a home environment. The advances we enjoy today in telecommuting technology make even the logistical challenges of working with offices halfway around the world workable, barring the obvious time zone challenges that no technology can solve.

Which is why it’s an easy investment for many HR departments to utilize to attract new employees.

Win-win, right?

Why Some Companies Are Rethinking Remote Work Policies

A few years ago, the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, caused lots of waves when one of her first acts as CEO was to ban their existing telecommuting/work from home policy. It caused a huge uproar amongst Yahoo employees and complaints of unfairness from those employees.

Many Yahoo employees had obviously grown accustomed to the advantages of the work from home policy, and many young mothers were among the most vocal critics, now having to worry about the costly and logistical challenges of finding and paying for expensive daycare to watch their children, so they could continue coming into the office on a full-time basis.

Yet Mayer stuck to her guns for some very specific reasons against working from home. 

The Value of Face to Face Interaction

When you’re working from home, you’re obviously not interacting directly with employees in the office.

It may not seem to matter much, because of all the technological advances that VPNs, peer to peer networks and remote desktop software provide for us. After all, if you can access everything you need in the office, from the comfort of your own home, what’s the big deal about coming to the office in the first place?

Are there any benefits that physically being in the office still provides versus staying and working from home?

Mayer argues there are definite tangible benefits in physically working in the office environment.

As advanced as remote work technology is, it still does not replace the face to face human interaction benefits of working side by side with your coworkers.

1. Telecommuting makes it harder to share knowledge

As a professional software developer, it’s vitally important to keep your technical skills sharp and up to date. Book knowledge is important, but in my opinion, there’s nothing like learning in real-time by interacting face to face with your fellow coworkers.

There is ALWAYS someone who knows more than you and different knowledge that you don’t currently possess.

In fact, I don’t WANT to work on a team where I’m the one with the most experience and knowledge! The only way I’m going to learn new concepts and acquire new and useful knowledge is by working with others smarter than myself.

But in order to take advantage of other people’s expertise and knowledge, there really isn’t any more direct way of doing that than sitting side by side, asking questions, and watching what they do. Attempting to do that over a telephone, or e-mail or instant message conversation simply doesn’t cut it.

I NEED to be interacting directly with that person, bouncing ideas off them, asking questions, and getting instant feedback.

And working from home simply doesn’t give me that kind of close interactive experience.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say technology can inadvertently DISCOURAGE direct human interaction. It’s easy to hide behind an e-mail or instant message, rather than respond face to face to a person who has a question or wants to discuss something with you. Many subtle nuances like body language and facial expressions are all lost in translation when you’re interacting with someone via e-mail or instant messaging.

2. Meetings require more coordination

When you work in the office with your other coworkers, initiating and conducting impromptu meetings is a snap. All you have to do is holler over the cube wall or your desk divider and ask your fellow co-workers to drop what they’re doing and find a conference room. Or even easier, just huddle together in a circle and start a  meeting.

That’s not so easy when you’re at home. You have to check everyone’s meeting schedules and hope they’re not away from their desks. A lot of planets have to align up for you to conduct a meeting.

3. Working remotely means less visibility in the organization 

If you want to get noticed in an organization and increase your chances of promotion and rising through the ranks, hiding behind technology and working from home isn’t doing you any favors. Sure, it’s possible to get noticed even if you’re working from home, but it seems like you’re unnecessarily handicapping yourself by reducing your opportunities to interact directly with your co-workers and upper management.

It’s almost common sense … which do we prefer on our birthday, an e-mail message from all our friends and relatives? Or a surprise birthday party where everyone took the time and effort to attend and convey their joy and happiness to you in person? 

Is it really any different in a corporate work environment?

4. Productivity can suffer  

There’s also the matter of motivation. I can confidently attest to the difficulty of maintaining the same motivation level when I’m working from home, in the comfort of my own home, versus going through all the effort of traveling to the office.

After all, why work hard, when Angry Birds is just a smartphone away?

This was one of the main arguments Mayer made for changing Yahoo’s work from policy: that remote work was counterproductive to her goal of increasing productivity.

Don’t get me wrong. There are obvious and significant financial and time-saving benefits for employees who take advantage of a work from home policy.

But it’s important to weigh those perks against the real work productivity challenges of motivation and face to face interaction benefits of physically traveling to the office.

I’ve taken advantage of work from home policies from several of my employers, and I have directly experienced some of the concerns Mayer argued for in abolishing their remote work policy.

In fact, I can equate the same logistical challenges and problems that working from home bring, to working with offshore teams as well. Not only are you dealing with the challenge of trying to coordinate work with team members that can be halfway across the globe, you’re also struggling with the time zone challenges where you only have a small window of time where you and the offshore team are even AWAKE and working in the office at the same time.

The Bottom Line

There isn’t an easy answer here. It’s not a black and white issue. I am certain there are some organizations who have embraced the work from home policy and had much success maintaining worker productivity.

But I think it’s worth challenging the assumption that a work from home policy is puppy dogs and roses. I think there are real and tangible losses that can happen when you’re working from home and every organization would be wise to analyze whether the obvious benefits of a work from home policy outweigh the negative consequences.

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