Working From Home is a Privilege

2nd March 2013

A few days ago Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer enacted a new policy via a Memo sent by their HR department. In short the message is, you need to report to the office and stop working from home.

I work in Engineering and currently in a multiple discipline environment (where all aspects of engineering: civil, mechanical, electrical, process, chemical are considered as part of the design process) and yet I am still permitted to work from home from time to time. Company policy states that working from home is not permitted without written permission from your supervisor. In practice it is rarely given out so I consider myself lucky.

There’s a lot of entitlement these days over what is acceptable and what isn’t. We have the technology for video and audio conferencing, instant messaging, email and passing around vast documentation in soft copy. Commuting times have never been longer and the incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing travel completely have never been greater.

Working for yourself or with short contracts allows you to set your own rules and work wherever you please (provided you accept contracts with companies amenable to your requirements). If that’s you, good for you. You are in the extremely small minority. Perhaps minuscule and imperceptible to the rest of the world. For jobs where you have a boss and their approval is required for your on-going employment and remuneration, working away from an office requires two things: measurable output and trust.

Measurable Output: Sitting in a meeting deciding how to direct a design is still work, yet all ten people get to show for it are a bunch of meeting minutes. Is this worth as much as a ten spreadsheets created in the same space of time? To an ill-informed observer the spreadsheet represents measurable results for hours expended whereas the meeting doesn’t. Does that mean that meetings are less valuable? Not wanting to go into what makes an effective meeting let’s agree that meetings are a vital part of all collaborative efforts. So rather it’s the opposite. Good meetings are invaluable.

On the subject of meetings - what’s wrong with having them over the phone? Or video-conferencing? I learned a long time ago that there is no substitute for "pressing the flesh". Human beings interact with more respect, more fluidity and more personally when they are in the same room. Whether that’s because our ears respond to higher and lower spoken frequencies than are carried by telephones, visual cues from body posture, micro-expressions and such that aren’t noticeable over a video conference, or something that we as a species don’t yet understand about the "vibe" of people together in a room - I’m not sure. Maybe it’s all of those things. Have to been to a rock concert? Can you honestly say the experience was the same just listening to that exact same song on a music player alone at home, compared to that concert with thousands of people listening live to the band play?

Trust: With workforces being so volatile these days, people change jobs all the time. Management change is frequent and companies are acquired, split, rejoined, re-split and resold regularly with each transition creating policy changes and still more staff changes. Traditionally employees could build a trust with their employer over time. In most companies now this doesn’t happen. Building trust takes time and it’s that time that most managers don’t have and trust is simply never built.

In short, management generally don’t trust their staff and face to face meetings are required for collaborative efforts which are, in effect, what nearly all company projects require. Allowing an individual to work from home who can be trusted also creates a divide with those employees that can’t be trusted and this drives employee dissatisfaction and increases staff turn-over. These are the reasons it is avoided and I can’t see these reasons changing in a big hurry.

What’s been wrong with the way this story has been told is two fold: assumptions that if a Male CEO made such a call, no-one would care. It was a management call, but what makes it news is that it flies in the face of Yahoo being a technology company where working from home is more common. It seems to be the general consensus that forward-thinking companies allow their employees to work from home. In my experience this is complete rubbish for the above stated reasons. The second problem is that most of the coverage is done by people that already work from home as freelance journalists and bloggers. Frankly, their opinions about the right to work from home are not representative of the majority of employers and are hence not based in reality.

The fact is that working from home is a rare privilege and a niche situation. It’s not a right and it’s not in our near futures.