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Balancing act: Telecommuting controversy rages on

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 29 2013 8:57 a.m. MDT

It seems I can't check out a website or cruise social media these days without hearing of another controversy regarding telecommuting. The latest involves Hewlett-Packard, which appears to be following Yahoo's lead.

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It seems I can't check out a website or cruise social media these days without hearing of another controversy regarding telecommuting.

Back in March, I wrote about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's announcement that the company's employees would no longer be allowed to work from home.

Her decision was met with strong negative reactions from flexible work advocates. But based on news out of Hewlett-Packard this month, Yahoo's announcement may have started a trend.

According to an Oct. 8 AllThingsD article, HP bosses are telling employees that they should work at the office if they can.

AllThingsD cited an undated question-and-answer document that was distributed to some HP employees and shared with the site. That document said the new policy is intended to start a cultural shift that "will help create a more connected work force and drive greater collaboration and innovation."

According to AllThingsD, the document continued: “During this critical turnaround period, HP needs all hands on deck. We recognize that in the past, we may have asked certain employees to work from home for various reasons. We now need to build a stronger culture of engagement and collaboration and the more employees we get into the office the better company we will be.”

Those reasons sound similar to Yahoo's: the idea that companies are losing out on idea generation and co-operation by letting people work from home.

But even if many companies are moving in this direction, I don't necessarily think they're correct to do so.

For certain employees filling certain jobs in certain companies, flexible schedules that include working from home make sense. I also acknowledge that, for some people, occupations and businesses, it's vital that "all hands" be present in the office during work hours.

It's easier to make a blanket policy one way or the other, but I think companies should at least try to be flexible in their approaches to this issue.

For example, I wrote a few weeks ago about a GetVoIP study in which 53 percent of tech workers surveyed said they would accept some kind of wage reduction in order to work from home. And some said they would accept a pay cut of more than 30 percent for the privilege.

I remarked at the time that I was surprised by some of those numbers. I was also interested in the responses of several readers to that column and the GetVoIP study.

For example, a reader named Daniel posted a comment online in which he wrote that he is self-employed and works at home in San Francisco. And unlike many of the people who write to me, he hates telecommuting.

"When I get up in the morning, it's just too easy to stay in my pajamas, nibble on breakfast, and read news or check my stock portfolio online until 9 or 10 in the morning because nobody is watching," Daniel wrote. "My work and personal life blur together, and at the end of a hard day my home feels hot and stuffy and in disorder, just like airplanes get near the end of a 10-hour flight. But I can't leave my work problems at the office and go home, because I am home.

"I would take a small pay cut if my clients would give me a nice office space with a reasonable commute. It's now possible to rent desks and cubicles in downtown San Francisco (in a shared workspace) for around $400 or $500 a month, and I'm seriously thinking about doing this. Telecommuting is a mixture of plusses and minuses. Not everyone enjoys it."

I think Daniel makes a good point. I've written about this primarily as a question of whether employers should give their employees the option of working from home if they can maintain productivity. But the fact is that some people probably prefer an office environment and are more productive there. That's worth remembering in this debate.

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