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February 26, 2013 4:49 PM A Big Step Back For Telecommuting

By Ed Kilgore

As someone who no longer shows up at an office to work, and in fact lives nearly 3,000 miles from headquarters, I’ve had no particularly compelling reason to doubt the longstanding predictions that information technology would eventually disassociate work from physical location, at least for “knowledge sector” occupations.

Yes, it’s been painfully evident to me that my own little corner of the “knowledge” universe has been undergoing a counter-trend, as think tanks once committed to far-flung scholar networks seem to be increasingly making D.C. residence a condition of employment, while newspapers and magazines prefer in-house staff to outsiders (the main reason I no longer write a column or two a week for the cash-flush and now staff-heavy New Republic). But I kinda figured that was mainly the result of a total buyer’s market for writing talent: why not require that the scribbler’s working right there in the harness if there’s an bottomless and infinitely replaceable supply of scribblers?

Yet the news from Yahoo, as discussed at CNN by business professor Rayman Fission, makes me wonder if the telecommuting revolution has simply been oversold:

When Yahoo’s relatively new CEO Marissa Mayer decreed that workers would be required to show up at the office rather than work remotely, the immediate backlash from outsiders was mostly on the side of the angry Yahoo employees who were losing the comfort and convenience of telecommuting. Inside the company, reactions were mixed.
It struck a deep chord, contrary as it was to the techno-utopian impulse that has helped define Silicon Valley: the idea that someday soon we’ll all be working in coffee shops or at kitchen tables, with broadband connections replacing in-person interactions.

Fisman goes on to argue that execs like Mayer have begun to conclude that personal interaction in the office is as essential to the innovation Yahoo treasures as the personal flexibility and—yes—freedom associated with telecommuting. As for morale, he suggests whatever buzzkill is experienced by former telecommuters will be compensated by raised spirits among Yahoo employees who have never left the cubicle, but who feel put-upon and maybe even lonely. It’s unclear how many people will be left without jobs by the new policy.

The whole article depressed me, though I took some cheer in the suggestion that this lurch back towards the industrial age may last only until such time as the company’s lagging productivity is turned around (reminding me of the old Marine slogan: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”).

Perhaps we’ll eventually drift back to time-clocks and factory whistles even for people who manufacture nothing but words. Too bad unions won’t come back, too. But in the mean-time, I’m grateful to WaMo for letting me avoid adding to the many years of my life that I’ll never get back spent sitting in meetings, and meetings about meetings.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Blue Girl on February 26, 2013 5:03 PM:

    I, too, thank the Monthly for my meager paycheck that comes in the mail whether I work in my bathrobe or not.

  • Rich on February 26, 2013 5:08 PM:

    Telework has been used as a panacea and an excuse to cut space and some other resources. Yet, it's often more expensive, if employers supply equipment, and often organizationally inefficient. Many kins of work are fine with telework, but teams for many kind of work need face to face ESP. Where people don't know each other. This seems like more of a correction Han a step backward.

  • c u n d gulag on February 26, 2013 5:14 PM:

    Some people would be great tele-workers.

    Some, like me, would be terrible.

    I need to show up at a certaint time, and do my thing, and then leave - no matter what hour that was.

    I would be a disaster as a tele-worker.
    When I was a Manager, after a period of crazy activity, I used to dole some out to my folks, for a day or two, just to give them soem time off.

    Maybe that's why they've gotten a bad rep.
    But when you're "Management," and work many hours beyond the 40 that are on the books, why not give people some time to chill out and relax?

  • edenZ on February 26, 2013 5:16 PM:

    Based on my experience, I agree that face-to-face facilitates technical innovation*. However, that doesn't mean no telecommuting - groups could have one day a week (or one week a month) that everyone has to be in the office, or it could vary based on the phase of the project they're working. Unfortunately, most large organizations have very top down policies that aren't flexible enough. Mostly because they don't trust their workforce to have integrity or be competent.
    * In certain fields. Certainly there are others (like writing) that are totally different.

  • bdop4 on February 26, 2013 5:24 PM:

    To echo edenZ, why does this have to be an "all or nothing" approach? In my perfect world, I would telecommute Monday and Friday, and spend Tuesday-Thursday collaborating with co-workers.

    I realize that isn't a "one size fits all" approach, but I would hope businesses would leverage techology to maximize ROI in relation to their particular business.

  • Christopher Hobe Morrison on February 26, 2013 5:27 PM:

    People who don't like telecommuting are either control freaks or goof-offs. Some jobs are better for telecommuting than others, but if I were working for Yahoo I would quit. The new boss seems to be afraid that if they aren't sitting at their work stations she can't be sure that they are working. But in any job that requires creativity, what happens if you suddenly get an idea in the middle of the night? As far as the idea that being together helps people come up with new ideas, even if that were true why would it necessarily follow that they have to be together in a huge headquarters built someplace at great expense that everybody has to get their butt to every day and do their time? Look at Constant Contact, which has two huge warehouses, one on the east coast and one on the west? In addition to the traffic and the air pollution, when you get everybody to live and work in the same place, how much are they all going to have to pay for a place to live?

    This is all an extremely stupid idea which is a generation behind where we are living now and where we will live in the future.

  • Anonymous on February 26, 2013 5:54 PM:

    "People who don't like telecommuting are either control freaks or goof-offs." Um, or they just want social interaction at work.

  • boatboy_srq on February 26, 2013 5:55 PM:

    Working for a tech company with above-average telecommuting options, perhaps I'm old-school but I prefer coming into the office. There have been recent studies that pointed to improved focus, better collaboration and other benefits of a central workplace, even if that central workplace isn't used by every employee every single workday. They were either part of or related to studies that showed casual dress was fading as a business trend, and that dressing up for work had positive results in employee output and morale.

    One of the things I remember from my interactions with AOL, the biggest telecommute/casual-workplace environment I've encountered, was the sheer unprofessionalism of that environment. Granted, the "helpdesk" and "support" queues were staffed by thinly-disguised volunteers and not employees, but the early days of AOL were a prime example of the corprate sphere's uncanny ability to take the "techno-utopian impluse" and twist into a techno-dystopian workplace reality.

    Think of it from this perspective: how many managers get face time with telecommuters? How often do company social events get ignored by folks who don't come into the office regularly? How many businesses skimp on workplace furnishings, amenities, or even practical health and safety considerations, because a plurality of their employees don't come in to the office? How many are considering BYOD policies for all office equipment, not as a convenience item, but as a cost savings? The ways telecommuting can be abused by the employer are many, vast, and reaching levels of acceptance our grandparents would never have considered appropriate.

    I have the greatest respect for professionals who telecommute. But business began to rely on the telecommuter over the last decade, not as a necessary option for labor, but as a means of reducing overall overhead - and reducing that overhead beyond what the telecommuting community justified, expecting that as the workplace environment worsened other workers would choose to telecommute as well, letting business spend still less on facilities, and so on. If you work away from the office by choice, that's one thing, and more power to you; but anyone who works away from the office because the office is cramped, dirty and generally unsuitable is being taken advantage of by the business - and that has to stop. Yahoo!'s move to bring their workers back in, in that context, is welcome pressure on other businesses, not to bring labor back under the (actual, physical) roof, but to reevaluate the workplace they provide - and make it worth coming in to every day instead of only when workers have to.

  • threegoal on February 26, 2013 6:20 PM:

    One consideration for a company like Yahoo that is headquartered in a highly priced real estate market like the Bay area is whether requiring everyone to not telecommute sentences employees to either very expensive houses/apartments or inordinately long commutes for those that live an hour or more away from the office to find an affordable place to live. Any chance that matters at a place like Yahoo, or do they just pay everyone really high salaries?

  • Barbara on February 26, 2013 6:28 PM:

    I work from home one day a week, and we have informal telecommuting (something I only started after working in the same office for 15 years). It's a relief not to worry about a variety of things that can be done "at home" while still getting the job done, but I still find it unlikely that most organizations will be successful unless a critical mass of their employees develop the camaraderie required for them to perceive themselves as being in it together.

    I do think other solutions could be tried, like one day a week or one week a month. Likewise you can experiment with "I don't care when you come in or leave so long as you are here at the core hours between 10:30 and 4:30" approach. My guess is that the situation is so fragmented at Yahoo that it was easier to go back and start all over.

    Telecommuting has definitely been oversold, and to an extent it has been used as an excuse to avoid taking real, affirmative steps to make the workplace friendlier -- for instance, on-site day care or actual family friendly leave policies. Many people have jobs that don't permit them to work from home, e.g., they support other people or the company's infrastructure.

  • John on February 26, 2013 6:37 PM:

    I'm mixed in my opinion having experienced both styles. I think any style works better if the goals are clear and management is engaged and supportive. If they have the attitude of let's take what we are doing and call it a plan then there will be trouble. Occasional face time is really useful. I live in a different state but still value visiting the home office once a quarter or so.

  • meady on February 26, 2013 6:38 PM:

    I telecomuted for an IT company for 2 years. At first it was wonderful, but as time wore on, it became less fun and/or flexible. I was a customer service manager at first for the West coast, but with company downturns, I became the manager for the US. I went from 10 hour days to 18 hour days in a blink. I never saw my customers or coworkers. Biggest problem in working from home is that working does eventually become your life. A person becomes less and less able to disengage. I was happy to go back to a place of work when the time came (my eventual layoff). As others have stated, one or two days a week or month would be great, fulltime telecommuting for me actually took away from my job satisfaction.

  • exlibra on February 26, 2013 8:50 PM:

    [...] execs like Mayer have begun to conclude that personal interaction in the office is as essential to the innovation [...]

    "Funny" (not really ha-ha funny), that Yahoo -- an essentially virtual entity -- is going back to the older model of office, because they believe that personal interaction is essential, while, at the same time, the drumbeat for virtual universities never stops. Even though so many people involved in the virtual U coursework are more "herd oriented" than the techno-geeks, and much less self motivated than someone just a few years older.

  • Crissa on February 26, 2013 10:22 PM:

    You know, there's more ways to do meetings than face to face, with everyone sitting around waiting for stuff to happen.

    Yahoo will probably continue to shrink in market share.

  • monoceros4 on February 26, 2013 10:36 PM:

    I suppose some people make "telecommuting" work. In my admittedly limited experience, it means computer programmers convincing themselves that they're engaging in "brainstorming" when really they're sitting around a coffeeshop with their laptops, eating croissants and chatting and maybe getting five minutes of work in.

    "But in any job that requires creativity, what happens if you suddenly get an idea in the middle of the night?"

    You write it down, get some sleep, then revisit the idea in the morning and realize that it only seemed like a brilliant idea because it was four in the morning and your brain was firing on three cylinders out of six.

  • jkl; on February 27, 2013 1:16 AM:

    We have to have a meeting about all these meetings we have to have. Ha ha--that was one of my jokes too.
    I don't telecommute but I retired early.

    And I like being free of the contagion of those not using hand sanitizer and coughing in your space every 5 minutes. Maybe because I worked in a psych hospital.
    Towards the end I hated wondering if someone took my parking space since I hauled in all this girly stuff and needed to be close to the doors. Maybe I miss drinking coffee with the guys, being the only girl in the area.

    I do waste more time at home with the cellphone, teevee, computer, stereo, kitchen, and general bs as the day evolves freely like life should be.
    I recommend retiring early.

  • JoeW on February 27, 2013 3:56 AM:

    Sorry, but I do think there is a tremendous value to human interaction on the physical plane. The immediacy of the raw, live collision of differing ideas can be very inspiring, while remaining grounded in the real world.

  • Ilona on February 27, 2013 6:08 AM:

    iresearchpaper.com
    Best article ever!

  • AndrewBW on February 27, 2013 8:45 AM:

    As a 40+ hour a week telecommuter doing editorial and publishing work which can be handled easily from home, I think that so long as I don't have to drive forever and a day to get there I would much rather work in an office.

  • Sisyphus on February 27, 2013 11:02 AM:

    Telecommuting in IT is actually an old (for IT) trend that's quickly going out of date. Where it makes sense, it's still used, but for productivity, you can't beat small, motivated, self-managed groups working face-to-face. Paired programming (http://www.versionone.com/Agile101/Pair_Programming.asp) is a staple of Agile development, and is a very valuable and useful thing, and I can't imagine trying to pair via Skype and a shared desktop.

  • wihntr on February 27, 2013 11:45 AM:

    I have never had-- and probably never will have-- the option of telecommuting. I am an assistant district attorney and as such have spend chunks of my day in a courtroom, some days more than others. Even if I were in private practice and could work from home for large parts of the day, as many solo practitioners do, I would loathe it. I like to keep work and home very firmly separated. I very rarely bring work home with me, even though with our office going more and more paperless I could. If I have work that needs to be done over the weekend I drive 40 minutes to the courthouse to do it rather than have it invade the sanctity of my home.

    I suppose that if a person views their job as a part of their personality, that aspect of telecommuting is fine. But if you view your job as a J-O-B, and not a vocation, telecommuting would be awful.

  • RT on February 27, 2013 3:05 PM:

    @wihntr: People who know this stuff strongly recommend that those who work at home make one room their office and use it ONLY for work. Conversely, when you're not in the home office, you're not working.

    Caveat: My job gives me the option to telecommute some of the time, but I live close to the office and prefer to work there.

  • jkl; on February 27, 2013 8:19 PM:

    It's all good, or should be.....dontcha think?