It’s About the Work, Not the Office

By JENNIFER GLASS  Op-Ed Contributor

Jennifer Glass is a professor of sociology and senior researcher in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

Published: March 7, 2013
Kris Mukai

THE recent decision by Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, to eliminate telecommuting for all workers brings her company back in line with most of corporate America, where working from home is more illusion than reality. Although many — some estimate most — American jobs could successfully be performed at home, only roughly 16 percent of American employees actually telecommute in any given year. And that figure is reached only by using a very generous definition of telecommuting — working from home at least one hour per week.

The idea behind the Yahoo announcement, as well as a more limited announcement from Best Buy this week that will add restrictions to its telecommuting policy, was that bringing workers back to the office would lead to greater collaboration and innovation. This is despite numerous studies showing that telecommuting workers are more productive than those working on-site.

Yet a work force culture based on long hours at the office with little regard for family or community does not inevitably lead to strong productivity or innovation. Two outdated ideas seem to underlie the Yahoo decision: first, that tech companies can still operate like the small groups of 20-something engineers that founded them; and second, the most old-fashioned of all, that companies get the most out of their employees by limiting their autonomy.

Consider the reality of telecommuting in the United States: most of the telecommuting hours put in by managers and professionals occur after they have worked at least 40 hours at the office. For them, working from home means checking e-mail, returning calls and writing reports during evenings, weekends and vacations.

I suspect Yahoo is not keen on eradicating that type of telecommuting, which increases work hours and squeezes ever greater productivity from workers. Its change was aimed at eliminating the type of telecommuting that substitutes for time spent at the office and that gives employees the opportunity to avoid long commutes and design their work hours around family or community obligations.

Why are companies so leery of this type of flexibility? Managers are tempted to use “face time” in the office as the de facto measurement of commitment and productivity. They are often suspicious about employees who work out of sight, believing they will shirk or drift if not under constant supervision. As a result, telecommuting is often viewed as a perk to be handed out after employees have proved their worth.

But another important reason may be the difficulty of developing reliable metrics to measure the performances of employees who work at home, especially when they are involved in team projects. We tend to attribute quality work to those we see all the time and with whom we discuss work performance and accomplishments.

This belief may be especially strong at tech companies, whose heady early days of creative innovation suggested that living at the office with your young peers produced the fastest results. What we tend to forget is that many unsuccessful tech companies also started that way, and that even the successful ones eventually had to grow beyond the boundaries of a group of friends pulling all-nighters of inventive exploration, getting a new platform or search architecture to work.

After all, Yahoo now has 14,000 employees — it’s hard to imagine that all of them have a mission to innovate and create new processes and products. These are customer service representatives, technical repair workers. Does Yahoo really want them creatively innovating, going off script with untested solutions?

Regardless, employees, creative or not, get older, marry, bear children, watch their parents grow infirm, and want lives outside the workplace. And despite companies’ best efforts to replace family and simulate home life by providing cafeterias, game rooms and concierge services for dry cleaning, most people eventually learn the hard way that companies will not care for you when times are hard; they will cut your pay or forgo your 401(k) match in economic downturns, and will dispose of you when you become ill or disabled. As Robert Frost reminds us, home is the place where they have to take you in. Work is not that place.



Related in Opinion