The CEO of Yahoo!, who made news when she took the position last summer while five months pregnant, announced through the company’s human resources arm yesterday that employees will no longer be permitted to work remotely.
"Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," says the memo from HR director Jackie Rees, and reprinted by Kara Swisher on allthingsd.com last night. "We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."
No. It doesn’t.
It did 40 years ago, when work and home were separate realms and workers had the luxury of taking care of one at a time. More accurately, men had the ability to take care of work because they knew that women had it covered at home.
It did 20 years ago, when the tools of work were all in the office — all the files and paperwork; the office phone, with the office number, and the cord that didn’t reach beyond the cubicle wall.
It did before there were studies showing that flexibility improves worker productivity, and morale and health.
It absolutely baffles me that we still haven’t figured this out.
I don’t even think about this issue from the perspective of someone who is devoted to family-friendly or feminist arguments (though these are not minor considerations by any means); for me, this is all about flexibility and productivity.
There are certainly some people who benefit from the traditional work environment and there are undoubtedly jobs where “being together” is important. But there are just as certainly some people who do faster and better work when they are in a different environment.
In my own case, there are some times when it’s absolutely critical that I’m physically present at work — either in the classroom, in my office, in a meeting. But there are other times when I benefit a great deal from being able to make use of technology and forward-thinking colleagues to work from home and participate in group work.
As an (obviously idiosyncratic) example (because my job is admittedly not a traditional office job): I’m currently involved in several collaborative research projects with other faculty members and with students. Occasionally, if our schedules allow, we’ll meet in person. More often, though, we’ll meet together on Google+ and share documents via Dropbox. It’s certainly nice to sit down together, but it’s absolutely false that doing so somehow produces better or faster work than meeting remotely.
In fact, in my own case, meeting together is actually far worse for my productivity than meeting remotely. Because I tend to schedule meetings for days when I’m not teaching and because I commute to work, I have to stop what I’m doing at home — typically reading or writing for an on-going research project, but also administrative tasks for UNL’s human rights program or grading student work or writing letters of recommendation — drive to work, attend a meeting or two, and then drive back home.
The commute represents a distinct loss of productivity and it would be a loss whether I do it first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon so that I’m at work all day or midday so that I’m physically at work just for my meetings. When I’m able to work from home, there’s no loss of productivity. I work, then I meet online, and then I go right back to working.
Of course, all of this begs the question of whether or not working from home in itself encourages or discourages productivity. Again, in my own case, it’s clear that I’m much more productive when I work from home than I am when I work at the office.
The office is filled with distractions: I am friendly with my colleagues and enjoy talking with them, and undergraduate and graduate students routinely stop by my office to visit. The distractions at home only exist if I actively select them: I have to turn on the television or mess around online. I don’t do these things because it would be costly for me if I did, in at least two obvious ways: first, I’m paying (a lot) for child care so that I can work (I could write a separate post about working from home while my kids are home too, incidentally); second, if I’m just playing around, I’m obviously not accomplishing the work I need to do for my job.
And yet there are still a good many people who assume that working from home means not working. As someone who has always worked from home, no matter where I’ve lived or what sort of work I was doing, this mentality defies explanation. If it was true that I played more than I worked, I don’t know how I could have successfully competed for and then held onto my current job … or any job, for that matter.
In high school and college, I did my homework in my room. In graduate school, I set up a small home office; that’s where I studied for my comprehensive exams and that’s where I wrote every single word of my dissertation. I had a lovely office at my first job out of graduate school; that’s where I met with students and visited with my colleagues. But turning my dissertation into my first book was done at my dining room table, as was all the writing for the articles I published in those three years. The same is true of my current office; it’s comfortable and spacious, but I simply do not work well there. I am far more prone to give in to distractions, of my own creation and from well-meaning others, than I am at home. So I wrote my second book from home too, not at the office.
And I’m convinced this is because I grew up working from home; we all do. No fourth grader packs up his spelling or math homework and takes it to some other location to work on it; we all do that homework at home. As we grow older, it’s certainly true that some students work better at the library than they do at their own desk. And so I obviously don’t think those students, when they leave school and enter the workforce, should be prevented from going to the office to do their work. But that’s also why I can’t comprehend the notion that everyone should go to the office every day … even if they’d be more productive from home. This mentality treats workers like interchangeable cogs.
Our failure to be flexible not only hurts parents, and specifically women, it also hurts our overall productivity because it forces everyone to work the same way whether or not that way allows them to do their best work.