Forget the Office: Let Employees Work from Home

Businesses are more efficient and employees more productive when people work remotely instead of at one central office. Pro or con?

Pro: Undeniable Savings

Although remote workers are thought to complicate a manager’s job, a highly distributed workplace has too many potential advantages to dismiss.

For most industries, the feasibility of working from home is determined largely by the structure of the employer and the motivation of the employee. In such situations, employers that can be flexible about work location may reap several rewards.

A company that embraces remote workers before its competitors can gain an edge in recruiting. Lifestyle concerns can easily trump salaries in a top worker’s decision process, and a superstar at a distance is often preferable to a local journeyman. Flexibility also enlarges the applicant pool. Being open to physically handicapped or geographically isolated workers can improve the prospects for finding a highly qualified candidate.

Embracing remote workers can reduce costs and improve productivity. For example, some businesses can save $8,000 a year for each employee who telecommutes. Office costs drop with fewer people on-site, while salaries may be lower for employees in the hinterlands. Moreover, many employees focus better and produce more without the distractions of an office.

Finally, supporting remote workers requires many of the same processes and technologies that global teams do. A small company contemplating global expansion might do well to start by supporting a distributed workplace in its own region.

Nathaniel Borenstein is the chief scientist of Mimecast. In 1985 he developed the Andrew Message System, the first multimedia electronic mail system to be used outside of a laboratory. In 1992, Borenstein co-created the MIME protocol, to date the Internet-standard multimedia data format for e-mail.

Con: Communications Deficit

Management research shows unequivocally that without face-to-face interaction, performance and the mental health of employees suffer.

My studies using sensor ID badges to measure human interaction in the workplace show that people with extensive face-to-face networks are roughly twice as productive as people who keep to themselves or only communicate over e-mail. The mental toll is equally striking: Face-to-face interaction accounts for nearly all boosts in job satisfaction, while e-mail communication has no effect.

Now imagine what happens when people work from home and can only rely on electronic forms of communication. For example, how long would it take to write an e-mail to explain all the nuances of your position on your company’s R&D budget? Probably a few hours. Then people would get back to you with their positions, also spending hours going over fine points that you didn’t think to consider when you wrote your e-mail, and this back and forth could take days or even weeks. But if you met face to face, you could accomplish this entire discussion in an hour.

There’s the added benefit of being able to go out for coffee afterward; even if we disagreed, we could build social capital difficult to reproduce through electronic media. Without face-to-face interaction, people become less committed to one another and the organization. Until communication technology vastly improves, we are better served by utilizing the mode of interaction that we’ve refined as a species over millions of years: face-to-face communication.

Ben Waber is president and chief executive officer of Sociometric Solutions, a management consulting firm that specializes in social sensing technology. He’s also a senior researcher at Harvard Business School and a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, where he received his PhD in the Human Dynamics Group. Waber has served as a consultant on technology trends, social networks, and organizational design for such concerns as LG Electronics, McKinsey & Co., and Gartner.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

GeorgeK

It depends on the personality of the employee. Some thrive in a crowed office environment, others need the quite confines of a home office to concentrate.
There is no single solution; which is why offering choices to employees is the best option.

Computer Programmer

All of your cons are [nonsense].
1. Email and IM are quick and more efficient for a plethora of reasons. A few are: they allow people to get their thoughts in order before sending, they can be responded to at appropriate times without jarring interruption, and they provide a record of what was said.

2. If you want face-to-face communication, have your employees come in to the office once or twice a week. In reality though, coworkers don't usually make good friends so it's pointless to force something that isn't there.

3. Motivation has nothing to do with seeing your face; it has everything to do with how much Interest the employee has in the work, whether that be creative control and/or profit sharing. Having a respectable amount of both is ideal and there is no substitute.

4. The discussion of how the office affects employee productivity is largely focused on how much it detracts from it, not how it contributes. By far, the optimal environment is one's home office. Anything else forces a commute, which is not only a waste of time, but dangerous. Anything else takes you out of a perfectly comfortable, non-invasive environment, and needlessly transplants you into something that can only ever approach the greatness of the former option.

Stop giving lip service to bad research. If anything, the test subjects were bribed or brainwashed.

C Jamison

With Face to Face technology availability, time zones managed world-wide, interactive shared boards/white boards providing a way to create a virtual think board, working from a remote/home location appears to make good use of a honest and reliable employee and save a company valuable office space, energy use, and money. However, the personal component will always need to be a part of the overall work plan!

yks

Both sides have provided pretty comprehensive arguments. Myself being a remote employee, I just have to agree with them.

KF McGahey

I work for a software company where the local office is 45 mins away. When I go in, everybody has their doors closed and most interactions are in passing.

My company gets at least 2 hrs a day extra effort when I stay at home, I save $50 a week in gas, and there's one less car on the road.

My dogs bark every now and then, but they make less messes than some of the managers I work with. ;-)

antony byrne

Whilst the option of working from home is often seen as a radical step for any business, (who might pride itself on its workplace investment), or manager (who might find it difficult managing workers that can't be seen) as well as employees (who have only known working at a desk all their lives), the 'Either/Or' notion is far from the optimum solution. Working from home may be one of the places that work gets done, but it certainly doesn't have to be the only place that work gets done.
Ben Waber rightly points out that social interaction is extremely beneficial so some time in the office workplace can be necessary too. So along with the option to work at home and at the office, the empowerment to work anywhere else in between can certainly be an option as well. Enabling individuals to decide which place works best for them to work wins tremendous worker votes because it implies that the business trusts them enough to work where they feel is appropriate to deliver the output expected of them. This attitude is highly prized by employees and opens the experience of working to more environments, meeting different people, and potentially delivering more innovation as a result. Once empowered, individuals and/or teams can select the best location to suit the tasks or activities that they hope to perform.
Of course this ‘evolution’ often requires a careful transition and so an effective and well-developed training program such as e-Work.com is essential.
If we continue to use the option of either 'Home' or 'the Office', then the concept is ill-founded.
Working from home is for the minority. Working from work and home is for many, but working anywhere is the future.
Antony Byrne - Director at FASTFWD-UK LTD

Engineer

Flexibility with this issue is irreversible and it doesn't matter what working environment is more productive at least for some people. In my case there is a scarcity of engineers with my skills (firmware) and the same is true for software, hardware, etc. We don't make much money these days: a secretary/manager where I work makes more money than I do. But I don't switch jobs because I can work from home as often as I want. My productivity is probably 5 times more than 20 years ago (thanks to the Internet) but my salary is 1.5 times higher, so why should I care about productivity since somebody else is profiting by it, not me? In my next life I am going to be a waiter or a secretary/manager... not an engineer: you need a good brain, keep studying... for little money.

LS

Not only it depends on the employee personality, commitment, time management skills, etc. but it also depends on the
employee’s position and responsibilities. In any case, this can always be implemented in specific situation (if there are some security risks, natural disaster, etc.) whereas the employee should be equipped in order for him to fulfill the required tasks from home in a professional manner.

Nathaniel Borenstein

FOLLOWUP -- On hiring the handicapped to work at home

After I wrote the "pro" section of this debate, I found myself thinking more and more about one particularly inspirational example, from my own history, of an employee working at home. I was moved to write this followup blog on the topic, which expands on one of the "pro" points that I barely touched on:

http://blog.mimecast.com/2012/02/when-hiring-remote-workers-makes-you-a-better-person/

or http://is.gd/oZRHFY

us expat

My UK engineering firm requires both. Days working in the office to achieve results that require close interaction between multidisciplinary teams. By the way no doors in my office so interaction is unavoidable.
Remote work is required to control projects that are split across Asia, the Middle Eat, Europe and North America. Remote work for short periods is also good to help key workers achieve work that requires deep concentration. Remote work also helps to balance outside life with work i.e waiting for a repair person or being there for a sick child and helps retention.

logan X

This is a great topic of debate, as I think the issue has to do with the skill sets and the job involved. To work on your own one must be willing to reach out to others and engage in face to face communication in ways that an office worker may take for granted. That said, in my dealings at www.topicsofdebate.com I find that working from home provides an essentially flexible way to do research and connect with people on off hours around the globe.

Interconnect Partners

Today with the Boradband Commission at ITU-Geneva broadband access to major population of developing world, whether on wireless on mobile broadband, or fixed line on cable. This has created opportunity for self employment creating entrepreneurship utilising modern tools as iPad, smart phones, tablets, cloud computing etc., etc. In the remotest part of the world broadband has knocked or is knocking backed by the ITU Broadband Commission. Fibre is being laid across the oceans, with satellites already providing internet access. So employees all working from home, is virtual offices, and virtual assistants, utilising the best infrastructure in their own area, and countries.

Harry Computer Guy

I telecommute one day a week. I think in the mental health makeup of the week, it is day that helps takes "the edge" off the work week.
One less commute day in traffic that week. A lunch time meal of something you want to eat. I am dressed to a comfort level for sitting at workstation that is relaxing. I get the 8 hours in that day, no matter how long it takes me...no pressure, just results. I like the telecommute. I consider it a "perk".

Peter Szymonik

As a business technology expert with 20+ years of management behind me, I disagree with comments that working virtual "is the future."

Working virtually is now and today and has been here for years.

The only issue and problem is horribly dated management techniques that haven't kept up with changes in the work environment and what technology offers.

What I have seen over and over again, is managers using meetings to make up for their inability to actually manage.

At a large Fortune 500 company I recently worked at, we had meetings where the end result, after hours of executive banter and thousands of dollars wasted on creating and accomplishing nothing, was scheduling another meeting "to review." Mindless.

We also need to recognize that the biggest waste of business resources and productivity is not from anything related to a physical office but the completely unproductive time, energy, and money wasted getting people to and from work. Look around you next time you are in traffic and ask yourself "why."

How many of those people around you and next to you would be far better off, at any and every level - to just wake up and log into work from home?

I often ask exectives who argue against this and claim "the work is here, the stuff is here, we need people here" - really? What exactly are we all manufacturing? If its not physical, then why are we all here?

Suzanne

I completely agree with those who point to entrenched and outdated management habits and views, including government, as the primary barrier to telecommuting being accepted and practiced in a standard and mainstream way. For well over a decade, ordinary people have been telecommuting. They work 9-5 Monday through Friday, attend meetings, take notes, conduct research, test systems, write, edit, do the math, collaborate with others, improve processes, design and develop systems – in short, they perform all the same tasks they would if they were in the office. And the world is moving from analog to digital, no question. Yet somehow, businesses and government departments think that even a typist cannot (or will not) even type at home. But if a doctor in Ontario can perform surgery on someone else across the world, surely writers, editors, programmers, lawyers, managers, and many in other vocations and professions can conduct 90% if not 100% of their business on the Internet. For myself, I began working full-time for a company from home nearly 20 years ago, and even though I perform all the duties of my job and social aspects of the company and my teams including donations to causes, office politics, performance reviews, weekly and project meetings and so forth, I have yet to meet my bosses and most co-workers face to face.
For the naysayers who feel there are too many problems to overcome, I say not one is insurmoutable. There are just as many problems in working at the office, but those problems have been addressed by now, mitigated with various policies and procedures. This has simply not happened for telecommuting. The biggest problem we hear is that managers fear losing control over workers they cannot see. But you can put in place easy, inexpensive, intelligent ways to “see” them, to track and measure their work and their well being. Once telecommuting is recognized as a mainstream way of “going to the office,” standard best-practice solutions can be established just as they have been for the office work environment.

Suzanne

P.S. And is it not telling that the "con" article begins, "Management research shows..." when it is management that seems to be the only stakeholder that does not want it in the first place.

S Burud

Two disconnects for me -- the question and the choices. Should we 'let' employees work from home is the old way of asking the question. Organizations are encouraging and/or requiring it for some people -- for the space savings alone. The question becomes how to make sure people can be effective --more about having the right systems in place.

And, it's not one vs. the other but a combination -- some in-person time and some remote work time. Best of both. Our company is virtual but I know I need in-person time at the right points to stay connected and for certain types of activities. If the work goals are clear enough and employees are given the authority to choose how they work best (and held accountable...that's the trick).

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