Once upon a time there was a place people went in order to complete tasks and earn a paycheck. This place was called an office.
About the time commutes, family needs and office culture conspired to nearly eliminate productivity 10 or more years ago, companies began letting their employees telecommute or work from home. The new work place is distributed – it can be anywhere your laptop or tablet can get an Internet signal: coffee shops, airports, hotels, public transit or even your kitchen.
This reality of the contemporary work place was challenged this week when Yahoo’s CEO and new mom, Marissa Mayer, issued a new directive requiring employees to work from the office. Flying in the face of recent corporate trends, the move has set off a firestorm of criticism.
My own experience with working from home was a gradual progression. When I first took the CBF communications job in 2002, I commuted from Macon to Atlanta four days a week and was allowed to work from home on Wednesdays until I relocated to the Atlanta area. It lasted four months, but with laptops and cell phones, my Wednesdays were as connected and as productive as any other day of the week.
But I didn’t like not being physically there. While I was glad to avoid the 90+ minute commute, it was difficult to build rapport with new colleagues, learn a new culture and be a part of essential meetings and conversations. Doing this remotely was a challenge.
My boss didn’t have hang-ups with working from home. In fact, he encouraged it. He worked from home on Fridays as a way to catch up, particularly after a busy week of travel. As my role evolved into more of a “No. 2” in the office and his proxy, I began to feel a real internal conflict over working from home. I felt I needed to be there to answer questions and collaborate, but because I was attending so many meetings and had so many interruptions, I was having difficulty getting my work done.
So I started working from home one day a week during the school year, when the house was empty. It was a good catch up day, and with my trusty laptop and mobile phone, I was always accessible.
Now that I am in a new job learning a new culture and building new relationships again, I feel a need to be in the office. I have worked from home once or twice, and the option is certainly available to me at Georgia Tech. But I find once again the need to be physically present.
This is where I resonate most acutely with Yahoo’s policy. Deep down I really do believe “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” to quote Mayer’s memo. But I also understand and need for flexibility for myself and my employees. There are some tasks that are better suited for working at home, and there are some times when working from home solves a lot of personal/familial scheduling problems.
A story on the policy change from NPR this week quoted one worker as saying she appreciated the ability to work from home because it sent the message that the company trusts its employees. Yes, that is a powerful morale boost. As long as the trust is rewarded with performance, it’s hard to argue against a work from home policy. But when work from home becomes “work at home” and an employee spends his or her day doing laundry, watching children or surfing the Internet, I believe that is theft.
Yes, I’m a little old school. Yes, I am also extroverted and like the interaction with people. Yes, I waste too much time getting involved in interacting with colleagues in the work place.
But no matter what Yahoo decrees, I believe work from home is as much a part of the modern workplace – as much a part of the culture of the New South – as being tethered to the office through mobile devices. I have yet to hear if Yahoo will rescind all of the laptops and mobile devices it gives its workers or alleviate them of the responsibility of responding to phone calls or e-mail while at home.
If it does make this radical shift, I might believe the move has merit and the company respects work-life balance. Because Mayer is having a nursery built next door to her office, a perk no other employee at Yahoo can pull off, I believe the company is blurring the lines between work and life even further, and the draconian “no working from home” will be a failed policy that is scrapped before the end of the year.
Now, I need to get back to some email. It’s Saturday morning and the kids will be up soon. What’s that about work-life balance?
Where is your favorite place to work? Do you prefer to work in the office, at home, a coffee shop, in nature? Where do you get the most done? Leave a comment below and enlighten us as we achieve maximum productivity.