Does Working From Home Make Us Depressed?

Marissa Mayer, whom I praised in Psychology at Work when she was appointed CEO of Yahoo, pulled a fast one on work-life balance types last week when she ended telecommuting at Yahoo. The blogosphere has lit up, with sentiment decidedly anti-Marissa. Of course, who writes blogs? People who sit in remote locations, electronically multitasking their days away.

I am not sure where I come down on this. It seems she was pretty ham-fisted in the way she announced the new policy, with little of the “dogs in the office” New Age flexibility Silicon Valley types are famous for, but maybe in the long run it will be better for some employees. Working from home is not the Margaritaville its proponents suggest.

Here is what I had to say about it on these pages last March during “National Telework Week.”

“This is National Telework Week, a celebration of the wonders of teleworking. For many workers stuck in a traditional office environment, teleworking conjures dreams of a seaside bungalow where your biggest worry is spilling a Mai Tai on your keyboard. In reality, though, teleworking is something far different and more quotidian, offering a strange brew of freedom and existential loneliness. The key for teleworkers is to find ways to maximize its benefits while not losing connection to the workplace hive of activity …

“… Teleworking is usually described in rapturous tones by its proponents. Upon close examination, however, the benefits show themselves to be of the garden variety sort, or worse, completely unproven. For example, the official website of National Telework Week, which is jointly sponsored by a federal government consortium and computer giant Cisco (What did you think? An office furniture manufacturer would sponsor a week promoting teleworking?), offers a Christmas list of the wonders of mass telecommuting, from saving the planet to the solving the existential question of work-life balance …

“… Nowhere, however, do the sponsors of teleworking address this question: does teleworking improve our well-being? This miracle of modern digital life was supposed to make us happier at work by allowing us to work anywhere, on our own time, correct? Why isn’t there any evidence that has happened? Almost all of the evidentiary benefits of teleworking are in the aggregate, such as sustainability, and don’t address what is happening to you and me psychologically and emotionally.

“… Those who study happiness suggest that it is not too good. Perhaps the best modern summation of what makes people happy is offered by psychologist Chris Peterson when he says ‘other people matter.’ Organizational scholar Jane Dutton of Michigan’s School of Business found in her research that the key to workplace happiness is something she calls ‘high-quality personal connections.’ Sociobiologists such as Edward O. Wilson teach us about the importance of ‘hive’ activities in the development and flourishing of living organisms, a hive being exactly what you think it is. The work of Martin Seligman and researchers at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center have shown in numerous studies that humans tend to report their highest moments of joy when engaged in group activities. An oft-cited academic study suggests working from home increases depression in a certain number of individuals. Even a pre-Marissa Yahoo writer weighed in, warning about the emotional threats to working from home. None of these experts suggest the key to happiness is spending more time in our basement, alone in our shorts, crunching numbers.”

On this issue I remain torn. I value time away from the office — a lot of time — but after too many days alone in front of the laptop I feel Ishmael’s “damp, drizzly November in my soul” approaching and need the buzz an office environment provides. What do you think? I will offer again this short quiz and look forward to your responses.

a) Teleworking is great; no way I am ever going back to that Grendel’s cave they call an office.

b) Teleworking is so bleak and lonely an existence I am reduced to reading  your blog, Dan.

c) What’s the big deal, dude? It’s 2013, despite Yahoo.

Now, back to Margaritaville. Working from home DOES have some advantages, now and then.