Following the decision of Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer in February that remote workers should relocate to offices or leave, a debate has been raging about the issue and if she is right in saying that telecommuting cuts into worker’s productivity.
A large part of the problem seems to be that, whilst there are plenty of academic studies on the subject, these offer conflicting opinions on the usefulness of working from home. Add to this that there are no official figures on how many workers telecommute and it has created a huge mixing pot of opinion.
In the UK, it’s thought as many as 20% of the workforce work from home at least one day a week, but there is no definite, official figure.
"All the evidence points to a rapid increase in the number of people who are working on the move or away from a fixed workstation. The availability of broadband in homes and affordable smartphones on the move is pushing the number higher each year,” says the Telework Association.
In Yahoo’s case, a leaked memo from HR Director Jackie Rees caused a social network backlash condemning the move.
"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side," the memo said. "That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices."
However, not everyone agrees with this, especially since technology is increasingly playing the part of an enabler when it comes to more people working from home.
Virgin’s Richard Branson ridiculed the idea, saying that Yahoo’s decision is "a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever." Whilst in the past collaboration was perhaps more difficult than it is now, Yahoo’s move could be seen to be understandable.
However, with videoconferencing technology improving all the time, and the rise of cloud computing which makes remote working even easier, it does seem a strange move, especially for a company that deal in technology themselves.
One report suggests that any performance dips seen in remote workers is likely to be because of firms not keeping up with the latest technology, rather than making for more lazy employees, but Yahoo seems to think that it’s due to the lack of face-to-face meetings.
"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meeting. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together," the memo went on to say.
However, according to Kathleen E. Christensen, program director for Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Working Longer program that studies aging Americans' work patterns: "There is very clear evidence that it increases autonomy, that it increases performance […] and it decreases stress."
She went on to say that researchers are usually "laggards, not leaders in establishing trends”.
In a statement to the New York Times, Yahoo denied that it was commenting on how remote working affects the economy in general, stating "This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home, this is about what is right for Yahoo right now.”