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.

However, several other online comments expressed support for the idea of exchanging some pay for flexibility.

"I think if I had kids in daycare, I'd take a pay cut and work from home instead of paying the thousands a year for someone else to look after them, but I agree with the other comments that working from home would probably lower my productivity," wrote one reader.

Another reader wrote that, in six years of working from home, he found he gets more work done "since I don't have to put up with politics and drama."

"Since I am more productive at home instead of the office, I should get an increase in my salary, not a reduction simply because my backside isn't warming a chair within visual range of my boss."

Now there's an idea. How hard would it be to convince a boss to pay you more for staying out of the office? Hmmm.

Another reader wrote that whether someone is allowed to work from home depends on expectations of productivity.

"I work from home, and my expectations are task-oriented and take a minimum amount of time to complete," this reader wrote. "In some ways I work harder than in an office, because I can't chat with coworkers, and there aren't any short breaks built in like before.

"Because I'm on salary, I have to work pretty hard to finish my assigned tasks in a regular 40 hours. It is an unspoken expectation that my contract will not be renewed each year if I do not complete quality work either."

This reader actually does get paid less than counterparts in the same field, "but to me having the flexibility and lack of commute that comes from working from home is well worth it. I miss the face-to-face relationships I can have with coworkers, but at the same time deal with a lot less politics. There are definite pros/cons, but I'm happy with it."

I think we can all agree that this issue can be complicated for both company executives and workers. However, I still believe it's worth the business community's time and effort to figure out what makes sense.

I hope examples of big companies deciding to bring people out of their homes and back to offices doesn't derail the telecommuting trend entirely. Regardless of the challenges involved, I'm certain that would be a mistake.

What do you think? Do you support Yahoo, HP and other companies that are deciding to end telecommuting for employees? Or do you feel that flexible work options should still be available in certain situations?

Please send me your ideas, and I may use some of your comments in a future column. After all, if recent history is any indication, this issue isn't going away anytime soon.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

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