Working From Home: Flexible and Productive or a Potential Nightmare?

March 1, 2013 | By Felicity Cull
Britt Selvitelle work home


About a week ago, directed by CEO Marrissa Mayer, Yahoo’s head of HR sent out a memo that effectively banned remote work at Yahoo. By June, all telecommuters need to change their arrangements and turn up to the office five days a week or quit.

In the aftermath of the memo being leaked by disgruntled employees, the Internet abounds with conjecture about the decision. Business Insider argued that the company had gotten ‘fat’ and that this was a ‘gutsy’ decision. Forbes on the other hand quoted a management professor who said that working from home and telecommuting was associated with higher productivity. Many are questioning Yahoo’s ability to manage remote workers. Yahoo has as yet declined to comment.

“What do you think about this decision?” a telecommuter tweeted at us, “remote and flexible working is the only thing that concerns me in roles.”

It’s a worn cliché that we live in an increasingly connected world, but we really do. I don’t imagine that since the onset of the Industrial Revolution has it been easier to get your work done within the home while remaining connected with your workplace and colleagues.  So why would this decision be made by a supposedly forward thinking tech company?

For a number of reasons, this issue is complex and I’d like to discuss two of the most tangled of these complexities here; health and safety issues and productivity.

It’s a common trope that working from home can cause depression and feelings of isolation, which chokes productivity. An Australian study by Dr Neville Meyers and Dr Greg Hearn found that in the year 2000, 46% of the information sector telecommuters that they interviewed said that social interactions with their workplace were inadequate.

It’s true that even when connected by phone and email communication can be difficult, since so much of our understanding comes from non-verbal cues. However, this study was undertaken before Skype and smartphones with video call capability were widely used. This recent study from the University of Stanford indicates that productivity actually goes up when people work from home, because workers take less breaks and sick days. It increasingly looks like letting those that want to operate from a workspace of their own choosing does not seriously challenge productivity.

The links between workspace and productivity are often interrogated. Lifehack abounds with ways to improve your workspace and academics such as Dr Barry Haynes have closely analysed the links between open plan offices and the output of workers. Basically, open plan office environments suit extroverts and not introverts, which would be fine if the percentages of each personality type weren’t roughly 50/50. If 50% of your workers are unhappy at their desks, they aren’t going to get much done.

Productivity pro Laura Stack argues that while open plan offices are built to encourage worker interaction and increase collaboration, they also distract and that is a killer of productivity. Her solution to that is telecommuting. You don’t have to worry about wearing a cardigan in summer because you’re under the AC vent at home.

Having said that, there are several legal issues surrounding allowing workers to work in their own environment, no matter how comfortable it is. If you trip over your computer cord while on the clock but you’re in your home, who pays the doctor’s bill, you or your employer?

In 2011, Telstra were sued because an employee working from home fell down a flight of stairs in her house. She won, they lost. Kristen Ramsey from Harmers Workplace Lawyers argues that “it is important for employers to evaluate potential risks and exposures when considering and granting [work from home] requests, as health and safety obligations apply the same way to work performed at home as they do to work performed in the office.” So, employers have far less control over your work environment but exactly the same legal responsibility to make sure it’s safe. This is not an easy negotiation, particularly for small businesses.

Until these factors are sorted out, working from home will be a fraught issue, which is a shame since studies show that 31% of people who want to work from home do so in order to spend more time with their families. It’s a difficult negotiation and something that needs to be considered carefully by both employees and employers. It remains to be seen if by cutting telecommuters from her workforce Mayer is cutting off deadwood, or just workers with different lifestyles.

Photo by Britt Selvitelle.