A Publication of WTVP

Does working from home improve efficiency or hamper innovation?

The longtime debate over telecommuting was recently thrust back into the headlines when Yahoo!—whose new CEO, Marissa Mayer, caused a stir last year after announcing her pregnancy and plans to forgo maternity leave—instituted a new policy banning employees from working from home. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” read the memo issued to Yahoo! employees in February. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together… Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices.”

The announcement has prompted some companies to revise their own telework policies, but also drawn sharp criticism from many employers and employees who regularly work from home. As HR managers scramble to figure out where their company stands on the issue, one must ask: What are the pros and cons of working from home? And is limiting productivity to just one setting really best for the bottom line?

According to the most recent U.S. Census, in 2010, 9.5 percent of the American workforce worked from home at least one day a week, and an increasingly large percentage of employers now offer the option of telecommuting. Supporters argue the benefits range from economic advantages to increased employee loyalty.

Allowing employees to work from home not only cuts down on commute times, reduces traffic congestion and saves office space, it allows more flexible working hours for employees—something many companies have found works to their advantage. According to a survey by the nonprofit association WorldatWork, nearly 80 percent of respondents said the flexibility to work at home had a “positive or extremely positive effect” on their job engagement, motivation and satisfaction. Meanwhile, research backed by the University of Stanford found a 13-percent increase in performance among employees who were asked to work from home at least four days a week—with participants working longer than their shift time and producing higher performance-per-minute output. The same workers reported higher job satisfaction and were 50 percent less likely to quit their jobs than their co-workers who continued working out of the corporate office.

On the other side of the argument, many feel that the new policy is in the best interests of Yahoo!, a company that many consider to have lost its innovative edge and is reportedly undergoing a corporate culture crisis. As articulated in the internal memo, telecommuting does not foster collaboration the same way as being in the presence of one’s co-workers does. And while there are a plethora of technologies that enable communication among team members across any distance, they don’t always allow for the same spontaneous exchange of information. Many managers also fear that lack of direct supervision will lead to telecommuters becoming distracted—and thus, less productive—or spending time on personal matters when they should be working. Moreover, some employees worry that working from home could affect their status back at the office, fearing they may be more likely to be laid off or passed over for a promotion.

While each side offers a strong argument, the optimal solution likely depends on the organization. Many businesses have found success allowing employees to work part-time from home, especially when their job involves clearly defined deliverables. Those whose jobs require more group brainstorming and creativity may be better suited to regularly working in the office, but employers could be more flexible and allow exceptions when personal conflicts arise. Overall, tackling the issue on a case-by-case basis may be better than enacting a strict policy. iBi