Does working from home make you less productive?

Is this the face that could ultimately affect your company's flexible working policy?
Is this the face that could ultimately affect your company's flexible working policy?
© Martin Klimek/ZUMA Press

It was the Memo from Hell, at least in the minds of many Yahoo employees. When workers from the beleaguered Internet giant opened up their e-mails on a February day in 2013, they saw a directive from Marissa Mayer, the company's CEO. The note, sent to employees by Jacqueline Reses, the head of Yahoo's human resources department, announced that employees could no longer work from home [sources: Swisher, Kotz]:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. ... Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Employees, the memo said, could still work from home in an emergency, but workers were urged to exercise their "best judgment in the spirit of collaboration" [source: Marcus].

Mayer's actions drew the wrath of many a pundit. They decried how it would harm Yahoo employees who rely on telecommuting to balance work and life issues. Boston.com's Kara Baskin said Mayer was "snobbish, one-dimensional, and out of touch." Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post intimated that Mayer was a fraud. On one hand, Mayer was telling her employees to get back to work in the office, while to make her life easier, she built at her own expense a nursery for her newborn adjacent to her office.

"How ironic that a technology company, dedicated to enabling connectivity, would enforce such a retrograde, back-to-the-assembly-line edict," Marcus opined.

The memo touched off a firestorm on cable news, the Internet and in the morning papers. It also spurred some copycats. Less than a week later, consumer electronics retailer Best Buy reined in its telecommuting policy considerably.

And so people began asking: Does working from home make an employee less productive? Is speed and quality sacrificed, as Mayer suggests, when employees telecommute? Let's find out.

The Facts on Telecommuting

It's 6 a.m. and Sophie, my chocolate Lab, is staring at me with her marble eyes, while Ivy Sue, the Great Dane, snoozes. Sophie sees me stir. She yelps, a high-pitched yelp that means "Dad, get your lazy butt up and take me out." Ivy rubs her meaty head against her oversized bed, groans, and slowly begins her day. I shove my partner Karen awake and take the dogs out. Within the hour, my belly is full of coffee. Karen is on her way to work, and I amble upstairs to my writer's garret. My day ends when I say it ends. Sometimes it's 4 p.m., other times earlier. Still other times, like tonight, around 9 p.m. (OK, I didn't work all day, but you get the idea.)

Home has been my only office for more than four years. I've learned a few things by working at home. It is my belief that, on average, I am more productive working from home than I ever was at the office. For one thing, there's no commute (I once traveled three hours a day). I'm not being called into senseless meetings, and no one is trying to sell me Girl Scout cookies. Lunch hours are now lunch 15 minutes. Watercooler gossip is gone. Distractions are nonexistent, unless Sophie and Ivy need to go outside or the cats are clawing one another's eyes out.

I'm not the only person who works this way. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of workers who telecommute has doubled in the past 30 years. In 1980, the percentage of people working from home primarily was 2.3 percent. In 2010, it was 4.2 percent. Census officials found that 10 percent of American workers labor from home at least one day a week. Just as many men work from home as women [source: Fottrell].

What's the reason? For one thing, many more jobs can be done from home. Those working as salespeople, IT workers, and yes, writers and editors are among the top telecommuters [source: San Francisco Chronicle]. That's because technology has made working at home easy. I can write upstairs on the PC or downstairs on the laptop. Broadband, wireless, instant messaging, texting, Skype and a host of other high-tech programs and innovations make a brick-and-mortar office obsolete for many of us. We can attend meetings virtually, converse with bosses and clients, and send files from one corner of the globe to the other [source: Kensing]. I don't even have to leave the house to send packages. Delivery and pickup is a computer mouse click away.

Many companies understand the positive benefits of allowing workers to telecommute. In fact, 90 percent of Cisco employees work from home, as do 81 percent of Accenture workers and 80 percent of Intel employees [source: CNN Money]. In all three instances, those employees were allowed to telecommute at least 20 percent of the time.

(Teleworking) Numbers Don't Lie

Yet, does telecommuting really make people more productive, or does Marissa Mayer have a point? Well, if you believe a study published in 2012 from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, then telecommuters are more productive and happier than office workers.

Stanford researchers conducted a study at a Shanghai-based company called CTrip, a Chinese travel agency that employs 16,000 workers, 249 of whom participated in the experiment. Those selected were split into a control group and a teleworking group. The researcher found that those working from home were 13 percent more productive than employees working in an office. Telecommuters worked 8.5 percent more hours, took shorter breaks and called in sick less. Moreover, researchers found a 50 percent decrease in the attrition rate among telecommuters compared to on-site workers [source: Stanford University].

The Stanford study mimics a similar study by Cisco, the technology company we just mentioned with a telecommuting policy in place. In 2008, the company conducted a survey of its nearly 2,000 employees. The majority of those who answered the survey said telecommuting allowed them to balance life and work more easily than working full time at the office. As a result, Cisco's telecommuters were happier and more productive. In addition, Cisco said, telecommuting saves the company $277 million a year. The average Cisco employee works at home two days a week. Sixty-nine percent said they were more productive when working remotely, while 83 percent said their ability to communicate with co-workers was the same, if not better, than working on-site [source: Cisco].

So, there you have it. While these are only two studies, they suggest that telecommuters are productive and happy, which leads to an increase in productivity and the company's bottom line. Still, there are drawbacks. We telecommuters are a lonely breed. There's no one to talk to face-to-face, no one to say, "Let's grab lunch." Moreover, telecommuters are always at the office. There really isn't a break [source: Greenberg].

Perhaps the biggest drawback is the lack of organic conversations that inspire creative thinking. That's just the type of atmosphere that Google has created at its home office in Mountain View, Calif., and in other locations. Google has taken great pains to make sure its in-house employees are always interacting with one another. People get to play beach volleyball, chess and soccer. There's free food in the carefully designed cafeteria, which resembles a high school eatery. The idea is to increase casual interactions (by literally bumping into one another) among employees. Such casual conversations lead to learning and collaboration and, companies hope, innovation. Google's program has spread to other corporations, including Facebook [source: Henn].

Still, I'd rather be home working. In fact, I tell any editor who will listen to pour on the work, because I don't want to go back to an office. My commute went from three hours a day to zero. I don't mind the isolation. It gives me time to think. My dogs and cats are good company. In fact, here comes one now. Mike Moo, the black cat, just plopped his furry behind in front of the computer. Off you go! Daddy's working.

Author's Note: Does working from home make you less productive?

I'll admit that working from home has its drawbacks, but the benefits outweigh any real or perceived hardships. The biggest benefit is my lack of commute. As I said in the article, I once commuted three hours a day, by car, then train, sometimes by bus, to a job 40 miles away. On most days, it was OK, others not so much. I remember when the chemical toilets on the train backed up. I also remember that the air conditioning would go on the fritz in the summer. Not a pretty sight in either case. Hopefully, I will continue to make enough money to sustain myself. So, pile on the work. I have nothing but time, and that's really what telecommuting is all about.

Related Articles

Sources

  • Cisco.com. "Cisco Study Finds Telecommuting Significantly Increases Employee Productivity, Work-Life Flexibility and Job Satisfaction." June 25, 2009. (March 14, 2013) http://newsroom.cisco.com/dlls/2009/prod_062609.html
  • CNN Money. "100 Best Companies to Work For 2012: Best benefits: Telecommuting." (March 14, 2013) http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/best-companies/2012/benefits/telecommuting.html
  • Fottrell, Quentin. "Working from home is a dead-end job." The Wall Street Journal. March 2, 2013. (March 14, 2013) http://articles.marketwatch.com/2013-03-02/finance/37284276_1_home-work-work-at-home-yahoo-employees
  • Greenberg, Herb. "Working from Home: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly." CNBC. Feb. 26, 2013. (March 14, 2013) http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130226211932-29478030-working-from-home-the-good-bad-and-the-ugly
  • Henn, Steve. "Serendipitous Interaction Key to Tech Firms' Workplace Design." NPR.com. March 13, 2013. (March 14, 2013) http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2013/03/13/174195695/serendipitous-interaction-key-to-tech-firms-workplace-design
  • Kensing, Kyle. "Increase Your Productivity By Working From Home. CareerCast.com. (March 13, 2013) http://www.careercast.com/career-news/increase-your-productivity-working-home
  • Kotz, Deborah. "Will Marissa Mayer's Yahoo ban on work at home increase productivity? New research suggests not." Boston.com. Feb. 27, 2013. (March 13, 2013) http://www.boston.com/dailydose/2013/02/27/will-marissa-mayer-yahoo-ban-work-home-increase-productivity-new-research-suggests-not/UVQFRlwnW11aMSAkD7sGpL/story.html
  • Marcus, Ruth. "A real Yahoo move." The Washington Post. Feb. 26, 2013. (March 13, 2013) http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ruth-marcus-a-real-yahoo-move/2013/02/26/9f6e75c6-805b-11e2-a350-49866afab584_story.html
  • San Francisco Chronicle: "Top 5 Career Fields Hiring for Telecommuting and Flexible Jobs from Flex Jobs." Oct. 7, 2011. (March 15, 2013) http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Top-5-Career-Fields-Hiring-for-Telecommuting-and-2322647.php
  • Stanford University. "Does Working from Home Work? Evidence From a Chinese Experiment." Feb. 22, 2013. (March 2013) http://www.stanford.edu/~nbloom/WFH.pdf
  • Swisher, Kara. "Physically Together": Here's the Internal Yahoo No-Work-From-Home Memo for Remote Workers and Maybe More." AllThingsD.com. Feb. 22, 2013. (March 14, 2013) http://allthingsd.com/20130222/physically-together-heres-the-internal-yahoo-no-work-from-home-memo-which-extends-beyond-remote-workers/