The Telecommuting Teeter-Totter

Yahoo’s elimination of its longtime work-from-home policy — and now Best Buy ironically following suit during National Telework Week— has sparked debate across the HR industry. What will happen to these companies’ ability to recruit top talent when wired workers are no longer wanted?

The response has been mixed, and the debate is heated because nearly one quarter of the workforce said they work at least some hours at home each week, according to a June 2012 monthly labor review from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Communispace, a consumer insights firm that conducts market research, uses a systematic approach to handle flexible work guidelines. Maria Tollefson, HR director for the company, said approximately 20 percent of the company’s workforce is on some type of flexible work arrangement, whether it’s remote work, working from home, adjusted hours or part-time schedules.

Employees often combine any number of those options to meet their needs. “Most employees are here six months before they move on to a flexible schedule. And we do this with full confidence that it’s going to work,” she said.

With regard to Yahoo’s announcement, Tollefson said, “It’s so hard to say what’s behind this decision; obviously, Yahoo is a well-respected company and brand. It’s possible that they have a lot of flexibility in place, but it got to a point where it was too difficult to manage.”

Despite the fact that the number of remote workers has spiked in recent years, the BLS report’s analysis section noted: “Popular perceptions of telecommuting conjure images of workers replacing hours worked onsite with hours more comfortably worked at home, for mothers and other care workers, especially. … Yet, we know little about how telecommuting in practice has become institutionalized in American workplaces.”

The percentage of employees who worked the majority of the week at home increased from 3.6 percent to 4.3 percent of the population between 2005 and 2010, according to an October 2012 report from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey on home-based workers.

For some workers, flexibility is a vital component of their modern work-life balance demands. “We know that in order to get the best players, we need to talk about our flexible work arrangements, and we do, from the get-go of our recruiting process,” Tollefson said. Communispace takes steps to ensure that each telecommuter’s workplace situation is reviewed, that it’s legitimate and that everyone who’s involved or could be affected has signed off.

The Other Argument
Although there’s some evidence to show that workers can be productive at Starbucks instead of at their cubicles, this is not necessarily so.

“Group cohesiveness, to morale, to information flow and organizational learning can suffer when people don’’t work in the same place as the rest of their team,” said Ben Waber, an MIT research scientist and CEO of Sociometric Solutions.

Waber and his colleagues at MIT found that an integral aspect of business is based on collaboration and engagement. They conducted a comprehensive study on call center performance, and after gathering hard behavioral data, they found that overall call center performance is actually predicted by employee face-to-face interaction.

“What’s pretty amazing is that from pharmaceutical development, to software firms, to financial firms, to call centers, the biggest predictor of performance is face-to-face interaction,” Waber said.

And although there are pros and cons to both arguments, Waber’s research suggests that individuals coming to work physically at Yahoo may benefit the company. Complex work may be better dealt with inside the office via face-to-face communication.

“If you’re trying to debate about what our hiring strategy is going to be for the next year, I could spend the next few hours thinking about how to write emails to it and then I’ll send you an email, you’ll send me an email back, maybe we’ll both take a couple of hours trying to think of how to respond, and then we’ll go back and forth for weeks. Or we could meet for a couple of hours, and actually have set a strategy,” Waber said.

Jennifer Kahn is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.

Do you agree with Yahoo’s decision? Do you think other organizations will follow suit? Tell us in the comment section below.