Can you really work from anywhere?

2013

Google's Chief Financial Officer, Patrick Pichette, ruffled a few feather recently when he told the Sydney Morning Herald that he believed working from home is not the best way to generate ideas and innovation.

Pichette was visiting Google's Australian office and a local start up business community, when he made some unexpected comments on the topic of working from home (WFH).

"The surprising question we get is: 'How many people telecommute at Google?" Pichette said. "And our answer is: 'As few as possible'."

"It's somewhat counterintuitive. People think, 'Well, because you're at Google you can work from anywhere.' Yes, you can work from anywhere, but many just commute to offices . . . Working from the office is really important."

Prichette makes an important point that is often overlooked in the debate on how productive WFH (or telecommuting) can be – the need (in certain jobs, and I would add cultures, organisation cultures and with certain personality types) for social interaction.

Pichette said he believed that working from home could "isolate employees from other staff."

"There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer 'What do you think of this?' These are magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of your company, of your own personal development and building much stronger communities."

Yet seemingly contrary to Prichette's views, the percentage of people who WFH is growing. In the US, for example, it is estimated to be around 10% of the workforce.

So is WFH a good thing – either for the employer or employee (or both)? How do organisations decide whether to provide WFH arrangements for their people? And if you're an employee who has the opportunity to participate in WFH, is it right for you?

There's been a raft of research on this topic from as far back as the mid 1970s. The general result of such studies is that WFH can be very productive for both the employer and the employee. But there are caveats.

A recent study (Bloom et al Jan 2013) of a Chinese company running a call centre showed that when two groups of employees were compared over a nine month period, (one traditional office bound and the other WFH), the WFH group were far more productive. In fact, they were 13% more productive.

However the authors point out that, "the job of a call center employee is particularly suitable for telecommuting. It requires neither teamwork nor in-person face time. Quantity and quality of performance can be easily quantified and evaluated. The link between effort and performance is direct. These conditions apply to a range of service jobs such as sales, IT support, and secretarial assistance"

"Team Leaders/Managers could generate a report from the database of the performance of the team members daily and easily detect problems in individual employees' performance," they added.

In the Chinese example, the results of the experiment were so successful (for the company), they decided to offer all their call centre employees the option of WFH or working in the office on a permanent basis (they'd all originally also been given the opportunity to volunteer for the WFH experiment).

Yet surprisingly, over half of all the employees soon changed their minds, indicating the extent of employee learning about their own suitability for working from home. In particular, two thirds of the control group decided to stay in the office, citing concerns over the loneliness of home working and lower rates of promotion.

In reverse, half of the WFH group changed their minds and returned to the office – typically those who had performed relatively badly at home.

My own observations about the growth in WFH arrangements is that over recent years the emphasis has been on providing flexible working conditions to encourage a more motivated and stable workforce.

In search of this, have the actual job factors been overlooked?

It's an equally important consideration. For instance, looking at professionals who WFH, an earlier 2007 study found that:

  • Jobs that are completed in their entirety by the employee are far more motivating
  • Higher feedback from the job itself is associated with more positive outcomes
  • Higher feedback from the manager is associated with more positive outcomes
  • Lower need to deal with others in the job is associated with more positive outcomes

If we now consider some of this evidence, perhaps there's more behind Mr Prichette's remarks than even he realises. These are important considerations for senior managers and HR managers when making decisions about offering WFH options. And for employees, it would be useful to look at the type of work on offer and one's own personality and work preferences before making a decision to WFH, no matter how appealing it may seem.

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden is MD of the Australian National Learning Institute and author of What To Do When You Become The Boss. He has been a boss many times over. He's also worked for many. Some of these relationships have been fantastic and some did not work as well as they might have.