Questions Executives Should Ask About Working Remotely – Part 2

Dustin Staiger

Is it controversial to tell your workers they should be in the office? Answers from few high-tech CEOs may surprise you.

When Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, banned her 12,000 employees from working at home, the outrage was immediate. New York Times Contributor Farhad Manjoo’s 2013 Slate article eviscerated Mayer for her dictatorial control over her employees’ lives. In one borderline personal attack on Mayer, Manjoo wrote, “Mayer is going to regret this decision. It’s myopic, unfriendly, and so boneheaded that I worry it’s the product of spending too much time at the office. (She did, after all, build a nursery next to her office to house her new baby).” Yahoo made the announcement to employees through a memo sent by Human Resources. 

“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.” This quote isn’t from Yahoo’s HR memo on behalf of Marissa Mayer, however. This quote belongs to a different memo from a different CEO, one whose number of employees is 25 times that of Mayer’s 12,000 at Yahoo. These were the words penned by Meg Whitman, CEO of HP and all 300,000 of its employees. Whitman observed Mayer make her wildly unpopular decision and she found the results enviable. In pursuit of Yahoo’s success, Whitman instituted a similar policy

In Part One of “Questions Executives Should Ask About Working Remotely,” we saw how working remotely is the wrong response to a different problem: poor office culture and less than desirable office environments. In Part Two, we’ll share more reasons great work deserves its place.

Question #3: What’s the point of working efficiently on ideas that suck?

The calling card of articles written in favor of working remotely (what used to be referred to as working from home, but more on why this later) has always been the claim it boosts efficiency. But studies both old and new have pointed out the inefficiency of working efficiently at the wrong tasks.

In “Marissa Mayer Has Made A Terrible Mistake,” Manjoo goes so far as to claim that telepresence robots, webcams, microphones, and strong Internet connection are soon to be no different than in-person communication. Manjoo continues, “We’ll all be able to work from anywhere, at any time.”

Studies both old and new have pointed out the inefficiency of working efficiently at the wrong tasks

But Mayer and Whitman’s results at Yahoo and HP seem to prove what Harvard Magazine’s study deemed the “Water Cooler” effect. Researchers for Harvard Medical School’s Center for Biomedical Informatics asked the question, “Does face time with colleagues produce higher-impact results?” To find out, they examined data from 35,000 biomedical science papers published between 1999 and 2003. Over 200,000 authors were involved. What was their conclusion? “Personal contact still matters—even in an age of e-mail, social networking, and video conferencing.”

To find out for sure, Ben Waber of MIT and Sociometric Solutions gave one airline company’s employees enhanced name badges with bluetooth trackers. He found that “people in tight-knit, face to face groups had job satisfaction that was 30% higher.”

If working remotely boosted efficiency (it doesn’t), it would only help us do the wrong tasks better. As it turns out, flexibility in geographic location does not make up for communication issues, it only increases them. This increase in miscommunication creates confusion about objectives and goals. Employees work hard at the wrong tasks and allow certain things to fall through the cracks as a result of poor communication? This affects you and your organization. 

But forcing employees back into the office doesn’t necessarily fix this problem, either. The issue is the environment in which work is supposed to take place. The right environment will support your team in doing great work. This is why we say, “Great work deserves its place.” This leads to our last question. 

Question #4: Why did “Working from Home” become “Working Remotely”?

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, wrote in critique of working remotely when she said what most remote working evangelists try to avoid discussing. “Let’s be honest: the reason we want to work at home is that we want our attention to be divided.”

Roiphe went on to say, “I know from experience that it’s not that simple to transport your work thoughts into your house. I know what it is like to carry a laptop to a coffee shop, just to shake free of the clutter of home thoughts…did I remember to pay the cable bill? Is it time to change the laundry and put it into the dryer?” Roiphe’s statement brings up seemingly obvious questions most people, particularly the critics of Mayer’s stock-doubling initiative, seem to have ignored.

It’s not that simple to tranport your work thoughts into your house. 

Wasn’t the initial idea of working outside the office communicated as “working from home”? When did working from home become working remotely? And an even better question would be “why?” Could it be that working from home was actually so distracting that workers had to resort to coffee shops and other Wi-Fi friendly areas?

Ask yourself why a coffee shop attracts remote workers? Many claim they enjoy being around other people who are working, drinking good coffee and opening themselves up to the possibility of impromptu collaborations and conversations. Does this sound like an environment where work can get done? Definitely, but perhaps what these coffee shop workers are truly after is not a Starbucks, but an office environment they enjoy and look forward to. The right furniture and office design can utilize the characteristics that make a coffee shop appealing. And maybe if we do that, then asking workers to be in the office more wouldn’t be so controversial.