My column for the Daily News is online. It’s called, “The Remote Workforce.” Here it is:
In the past few weeks, both Yahoo and Best Buy announced that they were bringing their at-home workers back into the office, thus signaling a possible reversal of a trend that has been progressing for more than a decade.
The evolution from rigid office environments to much more flexible work environments is something that I have lived. In the waning years of the 20th century, I worked for massive multinational corporations where the expectation was to drive to the office, be at your desk ready to work at start time and spend the day pretending that your life outside of those walls did not exist. Fast-forward to today and I work from anywhere — including a lot of time working from home.
While there were many drivers that pushed employees out of their cubes and into basements and coffee houses, the two largest have to do with technology. First, the dot-com boom of yesteryear had large technology companies — and companies rapidly deploying that new technology — competing for the best and brightest talent. Beyond raw cash, many of those companies sought to provide a more relaxed working environment that was in vogue in technology havens like Silicon Valley as additional inducement.
The second large driver has been the technology itself. In 2000, working from home might mean a dedicated business phone line, expensive T1 connection, and a computer costing thousands of dollars. At the same time, the tools for companies to manage access and security from a remote user were rudimentary by today’s standards. In 2013, an employee can be fully connected while sitting in his or her car with a cellphone and a tablet.
The advances in technology have enabled workers to work from anywhere.
Of course, working from an office and working from home present different challenges. Some jobs lend themselves better to one environment better than the other and some people just work better in one place or the other. For example, most welders, teachers, and chefs will have difficulty working outside of their physical place of business while developers, customer service agents and auditors will not.
Working in an office offers the social constructs of an office environment. There is oversight, coworker banter, in-office politics, easier personal bonding and, at the end of the day, you go home into a clearly different part of your life. The oversight may be stifling to some, but an office environment where everyone is seen and heard working brings out more productivity in others.
Working from home melds the worlds of home and work into a single physical environment, so it takes discipline on the part of the employee to not let the two interfere with each other. The employee still has to “drive to work” in their minds and “drive home” to be with their families at the end of the day.
Many companies that let their employees work outside of the office developed robust strategies and adjusted their cultures to make it work.
Yahoo was one of the early dot-coms and grew its culture around flexible norms. Best Buy, on the other hand, implemented the famous Results Only Work Environment, a management strategy developed by Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler. The ROWE strategy specifically rated and paid employees on only results and did not consider how many hours they worked, what time they worked or where they were located. Similar management strategies have proliferated with companies abandoning somewhat antiquated constructs of measuring productivity to adjust to the knowledge economy.
So what are we to make of such significant companies like Yahoo and Best Buy shedding their past practices and pulling all of the employees back into their cubes? Is it a signal of a larger shift in the business culture like the move from suits and ties to khakis and polos?
Don’t count on it.
Both Yahoo and Best Buy are companies facing serious business challenges. Yahoo has been fighting for market share and a competitive advantage against serious rivals like Google and Microsoft not to mention the constant torrent of smaller entrants to the market. Best Buy’s retail technology strategy is suffering from online competition as well as bigger box discounters like Walmart.
Both companies seem to be in search of a solution to their business challenges and are seeking to shake things up by abandoning telecommuting.
Meanwhile, the data supporting flexible working arrangements is very strong with many studies showing productivity increases with employees who work from home — mainly from fewer used sick days and breaks. For example, if I’m working from home, I do not have to take the day off to care for a kid home sick from school. And a recent poll by Challengers, Gray & Christmas Inc.
showed that 97 percent of companies polled had no intention of eliminating their telecommuting strategies.
The evolution of the 21st century workplace continues unabated. It is exciting to think of how we will work in the decades to come.
On a side note, the way our children participate in the workforce will be very different even from how we do it today. That is worth noting as we prepare them for it.
And if you’re smart, you outsource your own job to China.
That guy was not smart, there are ways of doing exactly what he did without leaving any trace at all.