A Response to the Telework Haters (Marissa Mayer, I’m Looking At You)

PureHatersDoctors cannot deliver babies through their computer screens, and Aaron Judge won’t be hitting homers from the comfort of his bathrobe (at least, not the safe-for-work kind) any time soon. But, what of traditional suit-and-tie jobs that can be performed with a laptop and an internet connection? There’s been a lot of chatter (and regurgitated statistics) about how flexible work arrangements are going the way of Pokemon Go, especially in the wake of IBM’s recent decision to recall its telecommuter employees back to their beige cubicles.

We’ll discuss things from the employer perspective here, and address the employee side in a subsequent post.

Telecommuting for Employers:

Depending on the size of your company, a 100% swing in either direction might not be sensible. IBM is not a startup. They employ 380,000 employees. In 2016, Vodafone released a survey on the adoption of flexible work arrangements. The survey revealed that 75% of companies worldwide have introduced some form of remote accommodation for employees, allowing them to either work from home or from any location other than the official office.

Vodafone surveyed small and medium-sized businesses, public sector organizations, and multinationals in 10 different countries.  Of the 75% of respondents with some form of flexible work arrangement:

  • 61% reported an increase in company profits their company’s profits increased;
  • 83% reported an improvement in productivity;
  • 58% believed that flexible working policies had a “positive impact” on their organization’s “reputation”

“Positive impact”, “productivity”, and “reputation” are less quantifiable than “profits”, and many companies are still resistant to the idea of consciously un-coupling their employees from a physical office space. In 2013, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo did not believe that innovation could take place if workers were not penned together in an office, and that, despite innovations allowing individuals to communicate across great distances (see, e.g., the telephone), idea-sharing could only happen in-person. She also felt that telework could too easily be abused by less productive workers who may need to be under the watchful eye of the boss in order to perform effectively.

One week after Mayer made her announcement, Best Buy followed suit, and changed their work-from-home program to require employees to seek managerial approval before deciding to go remote.

In a 2013 Forbes article, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos (a 1,500-employee company at the time of the article), claimed that working from home alone was the real bugaboo. He emphasized that a desire to build “company culture” was behind his discouraging words on the practice of remote work. Yet, as one of his employees points out in an email, Hsieh takes meetings from inside his residence and is seldom seen walking the Zappos halls. Hsieh’s response was:

“I think if more employees held meetings in their homes, invited folks that were interested in Zappos or downtown to come into their homes, etc., I actually would be all for that and think that it would be a good thing for our culture and brand.”  

So, a culture of house parties. Punch and pie will be served.

What Yahoo, Best Buy, and Zappos have in common is their relative size. As companies scale up, issues of coordination may behoove an employer to designate a “home base” where employees can, if they so desire, congregate and do work. Teleworking is also not feasible for many types of jobs. R&D may have to be performed in a lab, and managerial roles, or roles requiring creative collaboration, may be more effectively performed onsite.

But many roles can be performed remotely with the proper software: such as legal, tech, and certain sales roles. According to TheBalance, the top 10 jobs to perform remotely include freelance writer (hello), web or graphic designer, translator, customer service management, crowdsourcing manager, app developer, and e-book publisher.

For smaller companies, a 100% telecommuting setup can work for all employees – including creatives and senior management. Regular (say, quarterly) in-person, all-hands-on-deck meetings as well as routine team videoconferences can help bridge the physical distance between employees of smaller companies, or telecommuting teams within larger companies.

Each business services their own suite of customers, and maintains a roster of employees at all levels to help it achieve its goals, both on and off the balance sheet. There is no one-size-fits-all, but a wholesale jettisoning of flexible work policies could prove counterproductive to both the bottom line and employee satisfaction.

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