Does Working From Home or the Office Really Matter?

Winter TrafficThere have been a few articles, to say the least, on Yahoo C.E.O. Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban all working from home for all Yahoo employees.  Following her earth shattering announcement was a series of, “She had to do it” articles that explained about the shiftless, mindless, non producing consequences that followed from allowing employees to work from home. Or the list of missed opportunities that it represented.

Not long after that came an article in the New Yorker that mockingly explained something that I had been thinking all along. I don’t need to be at home to be non-productive. Statistics have shown for years that the majority of employees are not engaged.  One study indicates that 60% of employees in Canada are disengaged; another 15% are actively disengaged leaving just 25% who care about their work.  By actively disengaged I mean that they are not only not interested in their work, but they spend most of their time at work trying to ensure that others are not interested in their work. As someone who has to manage and motivate, I’d prefer if those actively disengaged employees were at home…permanently, but that’s another discussion.

The problem with employees who work from home and don’t produce isn’t location, among other things its culture and approach.  The work culture, the management approach, the tools provided to employees to do their work, the incentives given and of course, how accountability is reinforced. Working in the office is not going to be a magic wand that solves a lack of engagement, commitment and dare I say it, poor work ethics.

I would be a poor communicator indeed, if I didn’t add that what’s also missing is communications. It would be challenging for even the most dedicated of employees to get their focus right without clear direction and ongoing communications, no matter where they work.  In a world where teams are increasingly spread across continents, never mind cities, the whole debate of home or not home seems a bit moot. We have to learn to adapt our management approach to accommodate the concept that we won’t always be able to see our employees.

We have the technology required to do it. We have webcast, podcast, teleconference calls, videoconferencing, email and that ancient technology called faxes among other things. Yes, people still use fax machines. We can Jostle or Jive our employees into better engagement, we can even use Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus or any other interactive medium to inform and take a pulse. We just have to figure out how to use that technology to help us effectively manage and motivate staff.

I’m in Ottawa, Ontario and I have someone who reports to me from Halifax, Nova Scotia.  She is easily one of the most dedicated employees I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I don’t worry about what she’s doing.  I don’t debate the merits of having someone reporting to me that I can’t lay eyes on every day. I know what she’s doing based on weekly reports, calls and daily emails. I also get a clue from the products she produces and the services she delivers to our internal clients. We brainstorm on the phone and I have made fun of her by email.

I should also add that I work for an organization that has 5000 employees, the vast majority of whom work independently taking care of clients in their homes.  These incredible employees spend their days on their own and rarely take time for lunch, never mind making their way into an office.  They epitomize dedication, commitment and have a work ethic second to none. As it happens, the majority of the home and community care sector operates this way. So I think before jumping into the, “You need to be in an office to be productive” line, the more critical question is, what kind of culture have you created for employees to be productive in?

For the record, I’ve stared into space from my office desk and worked 12 hours without pause from home. I have also had great impromptu conversations that produced useful insights while I’m in the office and have been known to put a load of laundry on while at home.  There is no magic related to location. The only real impact that working from home has on productivity, is lower traffic volumes.


0 responses to “Does Working From Home or the Office Really Matter?

  • I really like Catarina’s comment on leadership and managers. And I’m surprised that no one has picked up on a comment made by Obama. He made it a couple of times, I think it was in his state-of-the-union address.

    He was talking about minimum wage, and the raising of it, and he talked about the importance of a person’s right to be paid for their effort. That is hugely different than the mentality of paying someone for their results . . . and yet, not a peep on that.

    Of course this discussion will go on for a long, long time. That’s because it does concern something that is so personal, as Tommy points out. However, if 75% of an organization’s staff are disengaged, then the problem is not with the individual, and it may not even be with the leadership . . . it may be more with the organization.

    If this disengagement is widespread across the vast majority of organizations, then it is certainly a cultural one, and yet like all cultural ‘problems’ these days, the media focuses more on individuals than on the culture.

    • The whole issue of employee engagement needs to be tackled and better understood. Compensation plays a role, though not as large a role as you might think and paying someone for their effort would certainly shine a spotlight on the engagement question. The concern I have is that it could end up penalizing workers because it skips over the whole question of why they are not engaged. My CEO reminded me the other day that culture eats strategy for breakfast and I think that’s the point you’re making. You can have good leadership, you can address the compensation question, but if the culture isn’t working, then productivity goes down and the results won’t be there. Thanks for jumping in on this one, I think its a conversation all organizations should be having.

  • I guess this varies for different people. Some works better from home while others work better in the office. For me, I personally like working in the office because there are too many distractions at home.

    • I do think its personal. If you are engaged, you will be engaged regardless of setting. If your manager can’t manage, then it also doesn’t matter where you are. I get nervous about broad policies that don’t take into account all of the factors that contribute to productivity.

  • Worker productivity can slack either at home or at work sites. There are so many factors to take into consideration. I’ve been working from home for 1.5 years now, and I still seek ways to up my productivity. It takes the right kind of person to be disciplined, but it can be done. When I was in the classroom, it was like the teachers could barely be trusted with simple planning days for curriculum. Instead, the school board would plan awful training sessions that benefited nobody just to keep us busy… when seven hours would be much appreciated for actually getting work done!

    • Thanks for the comment Jeri. I think you said it all when you said it takes discipline to be productive. I think that’s true no matter where you are working.

  • I was a programmer for a number of years. I worked in an office, at a desk. I saw my manager, both formally and informally, every day. Computer job runs and error messages told me if i was doing my job right. The first time I taught a class of programmers my great fear was not, can i teach this class. It was, where is my feedback and my manager’s feedback going to come from? It turned out, students will give a teacher feedback and managers can find out how well you taught the class. I think it is the same with working from home. Organizations have to plan in how to replace the serendipity of communications that comes from proximity and the reinforcement and visibility that good employees need to advance.

  • Good and logical article that I agree with.

    Sadly it all mainly boils down to lack of leadership. The majority of so called leaders in this world are in fact managers, even though they regard themselves as leaders.

    Another aspect is that only self motivated people can work from home. Am used to landing at the other side of the world and start working from a hotel room so for me it works out very well to work from home or a hotel.

    When it comes to Yahoo, it’s possible that a lot of their employees have lost motivation. If so, she is right to have them come to the office and make sure the atmosphere there have a positive impact on them, make them have brain stormings and come up with innovative ideas and solutions. If not Yahoo’s trouble may continue.

    • Thanks Catarina,

      The leadership question seems to sit at the heart of so many challenges. I used to think it was a straight forward thing, if you’re in charge, then take charge. Whether that meant having a vision and following it, putting the right people in the right places and then listening to what they said, or simply ensuring that the communications pathways were open and responsive. What I find is that so many leaders seem afraid. Afraid of making mistakes, afraid of admitting their wrong, afraid of difficult decisions. I’ll say this for Yahoo’s president, regardless of whether the decision she made was the right one or not, she at least had the courage to lead.

  • You make some good points here! I think it really does come down to work ethic and incentives. If you have employees who don’t take any pride in the work they do, they won’t perform any different in an office as they would from home. Likewise, those who are on top of the work they produce will be so from any location.

  • You summed it up well – If the person is productive by nature, then they will be productive in either environment. I have worked from a home office for 10 years, and still part time in the office. I get much more done from my home office. Perhaps it depends too on the persons level of distractability.

    • Thank you for commenting. I think you’re right, distraction plays a huge role in determining what’s going to work. I work from home a few days each week because there is no one there to distract me from my work. One of my colleagues never works from home because it’s too easy to get distracted by domestic life.

  • I agree with the accountability aspect. It takes a certain personality to maintain focus whether it is at an office setting with a supervisor that holds people accountable, or at home where you have to keep yourself focused.

    • Thanks for commenting Jon. I guess part of the challenge is knowing yourself well enough to know that if your not going to perform independently, then try to avoid those situations.

  • I think a working from home ban is ridiculous. When I worked in a corporate office there were so many people who would just waste hours BS’ing with other employees at their cubicles, in offices and in break areas. Some people can work so much more effectively from home without the social distractions at an office. I am guilty too…there were times when I would spend at least a half hour chatting away with my co-worker at her cubicle. This is a great post!

  • The debate as to who right and who’s wrong will go on for a very long time. As far as which is better. I think that gets down to the individual. Some are well suited for working form home. Others have little form of self discipline and need boundaries and/or training. When possible it helps to hired to right individual in the first place making this issue less of a problem. Just my thoughts. 🙂

  • Simone Hart says:
    March 5, 2013 @ 02:53 pm

    I really liked this. You raised some excellent points.

  • This was posted less than a half hour ago and since your dedicated employee is usually pretty good staying on top of her e-mails, it has just been read – and appreciated. 🙂 As an engaged employee, I am productive most days whether at home or at the office and this is 100% because I love my work and my team and I want to produce projects that make others pleased and more productive in their own roles. I am motivated because of the direction I receive, the trust and level of autonomy I am given in accomplishing tasks assigned to me, and the teamwork to achieve good outcomes. I cannot imagine what it would be like to work in an environment where there is confusion and poor direction. It seems that good communications truly ARE the foundation for all-around success.

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