May 13, 2013

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer got the world talking earlier this year when an internal memo was leaked, effectively announcing her intention to put an end to the company’s work from home policy.

Beginning in June, employees who work from home will be expected to start working from the office:

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.”

Of course, this announcement was greeted with a lot of criticism from the tech community and proponents of flexible work environments.

Yahoo’s either/or position

Many complained that the policy was especially hard on new mothers who often work from home, which may have been a factor in the company’s recent expansion of maternity and paternity leave benefits. The “telecommuting ban” still appears to be in place, however, in spite of arguments that the practice makes workers more productive.

While many agree that allowing staff to work from home can lead to increased productivity, the trade-off may be a less innovative workforce overall. However, I feel it is important to note that occasional telecommuting might be a good idea at certain times. Sure, bumping into a colleague at the water cooler might be the genesis of a great idea, but there are other times when you just need to tune everything out and get a project done.

This hardline position overlooks increased productivity as well as other benefits that may stem from work from home arrangements. Mayer also falls prey to the either/or fallacy; her position implies that either employees all work in one location at all times, or that there just isn’t a good way to collaborate and innovate.

At one time, that may have been true, but now there are many ways for co-workers to work together without always being together. Mayer does have valid points, though, as the distributed arrangement also has its share of downsides.

Meeting some common challenges

Possibly the two biggest issues facing companies with a distributed workforce are communication and accountability. Any company considering a distributed arrangement for their staff needs to work out how to make sure employees, who may be geographically scattered, work closely with each other and stay accountable for their work. This might be achieved by requiring a minimum amount of work to be done from the office.

One company that has largely overcome these obstacles is Automattic, the company that hosts the web servers for Employees are scattered across the globe, but they meet regularly via Skype, call each other when needed, and even fly to meet face-to-face when necessary. A policy of “overcommunication” helps Automattic and other companies to make the most of distributed workforces.

While I feel that working in the same physical space isn’t something you can ever replicate with technology, there is something to be said for having a distributed workforce to some degree. I’d imagine that it could be a viable option for many companies, although the ideal implementation of this would certainly vary from group to group.

8 benefits of a distributed workforce

Here are some popular ways to benefit from having a distributed workforce:

  1. Put together a great team — Openness to a distributed workforce allows a company to hire the best talent available – anywhere in the world. A company that insists on its employees coming into the office every day is limited to individuals who are either local or willing to relocate.
  2. Keep your team focused on their main objectives — When things get particularly busy, your distributed model might include contracting outsourced support, such as virtual assistants to manage some of the administrative tasks and receptionist duties. There are also numerous freelancer services, matching up businesses with independent contractors that specialize in everything from database administration to product design. The main benefit is that, unlike traditional staff, these third party services can be contracted on an as-needed basis – perfect when you only occasionally need a particular skill set.
  3. Reduce sick time and have a healthier environment — Although staying in bed and resting is certainly advisable when a person is full-on sick, there are many cases where an employee may feel “a little under the weather” but still show up for work. Employees can (and often do) continue to work while feeling unwell. However, not giving them the option to take a break and work from home can cause them to get worse, or even spread germs to other employees. Furthermore, an employee that stays home to take care of a sick child can still get work done if your workforce is organized to support that.
  4. Support your employees’ most effective times to work — Not everyone does his or her best work between 8 am and 5 pm. For example, some of your staff will be a lot more functional at midnight than during daylight hours. I personally like to wake up very early from time to time, which lets me get more things done when there are fewer distractions. Collaboration is important, though; sometimes I work from home for a few hours before going into the office for the rest of the day (or vice versa). I’ve found this lets me achieve a good balance.
  5. Have your office become more environmentally responsible — In the U. S., the average commute is about 25 miles each way. Some commuters spend more than 90 minutes traveling more than 50 miles each way. Even one day per week of working at home reduces greenhouse emissions significantly. In addition, long commutes are linked to a variety of negative effects, including back and neck problems, loss of sleep, and greater unhappiness. These negative outcomes can contribute to increased sick time and employee turnover.
  6. Trim some of your expenses — Companies with a distributed workforce often have reduced overhead. For every employee who works at home, the company does not need to allocate space and purchase supplies for that person. Less space also means reduced utility bills. Having a few different multi-purpose areas would be a smart move, though, for when coworkers want to meet in-person. A simple conference room containing a big table and plenty of outlets might be all you need.
  7. Take advantage of useful technology — Developing a more distributed workforce has become easier, as there are now many great tools and services available to help. This could be an entire post unto itself, as I’ve used many tools to collaborate better and work smarter, both in and out of the office. This includes apps and cloud-based services by Zoho, Trello, and Dropbox, just to name a few.
  8. Make your staff happier — Employees who can choose to work from home may have greater job satisfaction than those without a choice. Greater job satisfaction is a common factor in reducing turnover and improving the quality of work. Having this option can be empowering, even for employees who prefer going into the office every day.