Working hard? Hardly working!

Slightly dinged high-tech firm Yahoo! has decided to pull the plug on working from home:

"Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," Rese, who was hired last fall by Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer, explained in the memo
This is interesting because ex-Googler Mayer is firing on all cylinders trying to turn around Yahoo! - so why is she picking on this particular "perk"? After all, in a modern digital workplace, can't you do everything from home that you can do in your office?

Well, not really. There are a number of dirty secrets about working from home:

  • You can't do as much as you can in the office. Unless you have a home machine and monitor set-up which is at least as well-specc'd as your office hardware, you're going find yourself more restricted in the space you can use, and the latency between clicking a mouse and seeing the result will be higher. You'll therefore be working at a lower rate.
  • You have a similar number of interruptions as you do in the office, but none of the home interruptions are productive. They're not co-workers asking how to get things done or sounding off ideas - they're the postman delivering your copy of "War and Peace", someone calling your home phone, a particularly interesting programme on morning TV.
  • There are some tasks which can be done more effectively at home than at work - certain focused tasks benefit from a relatively interrupt-controlled environment, e.g. writing performance feedback reports. However those tasks are limited in number and sparse in occurrence; the more days you work at home in a given period, the less able you are to make effective use of your home environment.
  • Every day away from the office is a day missing ideas from your co-workers. While it's possible that everyone you work with is a moron, this is not the norm - nor should it be in a high-tech company like Yahoo! Cut yourself off from your colleagues and you can find yourself doing work that is no longer useful, could be done in 10% of the time using a new tool or system, or helping a team whose project is about to be shut down. If you view your job as being paid by the hour, this may be fine, but your company wants you to maximise company productivity.
  • You mentally subtract the time you spend commuting, so your 10 hour work day becomes an 8 hour working day. This is fine as far as it goes - but that saving gets used and re-used as justification for doing other things (popping out to the shops, for instance) so that you still end up working fewer hours than at work despite spending nominally longer "working".
  • There are some tasks that you can only effectively do in the office, so you end up organising them around your work-at-home days rather than vice versa, inconveniencing others by delays for your own benefit.
In short, the benefits from working from home are few, overstated, accrue disproportionately to the home-worker rather than the company, and rapidly vanish as more days are worked at home.

I think that the Business Week journo misses the point of Mayer's plan, though:

In fact, what's most telling about this decision is that it highlights Yahoo's apparent inability to keep tabs on its employees unless they're physically at their desks.
I think it's more likely that Yahoo! already has a good idea of what its employees are doing, but the effort required to build a paper trail to fire them (and therefore cause their accumulated shares to vest) is too great. Better by far to use this approach to winnow out the slackers by making them quit in disgust at the end of the easy times, apply a little discretion in the case of superstars that Yahoo! doesn't want to lose, and come out ahead. I do think it will hurt Yahoo! a little by discouraging some good engineers from applying, but my guess is that Mayer wants to reduce headcount overall and is willing to take a recruiting hit in exchange for no longer paying for the slackers.

Having said all that, I value the option of working at home; I hope that I am at least as productive at home as at work, but then I make sure that my home working is planned, appropriate and infrequent.

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