Sunday, October 15, 2017

Was Telecommuting Oversold?

When Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting at Yahoo! the outcry was swift and harsh. How could she have failed to see that people who work at home, on their own schedules, are more productive than those who work in an office? And how could she have missed the fact that women with small children can find a better work/life balance when they are working at home?

Other, more contrary souls, remarked that what mattered was the bottom line, not worker convenience.

Anyway, Mayer persisted with her new policy. It did not save Yahoo! but it brought the issue to the forefront. Now, IBM has just followed her lead and has called its workers back to their offices. In his Atlantic article Jerry Useem also notes that Google and Facebook, to choose two companies at random, never bought the telecommuting hype anyway.

Useem explains:

Then, in March of this year, came a startling announcement: IBM wanted thousands of its workers back in actual, physical offices again.

The reaction was generally unsparing. The announcement was depicted, variously, as the desperate move of a company whose revenues had fallen 20 quarters in a row; a veiled method of shedding workers; or an attempt to imitate companies, like Apple and Google, that never embraced remote work in the first place. “If what they’re looking to do is reduce productivity, lose talent, and increase cost, maybe they’re on to something,” says Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics, which measures (and champions) working from home.

IBM might have seen this coming. A similarly censorious reaction greeted Yahoo when it reversed its work-from-home policy in 2013. Aetna and Best Buy have taken heat for like-minded moves since. That IBM called back its employees anyway is telling, especially given its history as “a business whose business was how other businesses do business.” Perhaps Big Blue’s decision will prove to be a mere stumble in the long, inevitable march toward remote work for all. But there’s reason to regard the move as a signal, however faint, that telecommuting has reached its high-water mark—and that more is lost in working apart than was first apparent.

A significant number of American workers now work at home.  Is American business sabotaging its own productivity by pursuing a fad? Useem continued:

How could this be? According to Gallup, 43 percent of U.S. employees work remotely all or some of the time. As I look to my left, and then to my right, I see two other business-casual-clad men hammering away on their laptops beside me at a Starbucks just outside Chicago. They look productive. Studies back this impression up. Letting Chinese call-center employees work from home boosted their productivity by 13 percent, a Stanford study reported. And, again according to Gallup, remote workers log significantly longer hours than their office-bound counterparts.

Here we arrive at a cautionary tale, one that allows us to question the value of all the studies that purport to prove whatever they wanted to prove. In this case, it is not at all obvious that telecommuting enhances worker productivity. This raises the question of what you do when different studies, presumably of the same issue, produce different results:

Another batch of studies, however, shows the exact opposite: that proximity boosts productivity. (Don’t send call-center workers home, one such study argues—encourage them to spend more time together in the break room, where they can swap tricks of the trade.) Trying to determine which set of studies to trust is—trust me—a futile exercise. The data tend to talk past each other. But the research starts to make a little more sense if you ask what type of productivity we are talking about.

Apparently, there are two ways to measure productivity. The first is more personal and refers to jobs where personal interaction is more important:

If it’s personal productivity—how many sales you close or customer complaints you handle—then the research, on balance, suggests that it’s probably better to let people work where and when they want. For jobs that mainly require interactions with clients (consultant, insurance salesman) or don’t require much interaction at all (columnist), the office has little to offer besides interruption.

When it comes to teamwork, to groups of people collaborating, being in the office seems clearly to be preferable:

But other types of work hinge on what might be called “collaborative efficiency”—the speed at which a group successfully solves a problem. And distance seems to drag collaborative efficiency down. Why? The short answer is that collaboration requires communication. And the communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest, and highest-bandwidth connection is—for the moment, anyway—still the office.

We like to think that email and text messaging are efficient ways to communicate. It turns out that they are far less efficient than the language of gestures that takes place when people are in close proximity. Useem examines what happens when two pilots are sharing a cockpit:

Match the audio with a video of the cockpit exchange and it’s clear that the pilots don’t need to say much to reach a shared understanding of the problem. That it’s a critical situation is underscored by body language: The flight engineer turns his body to face the others. That the fuel is very low is conveyed by jabbing his index finger at the fuel gauge. And a narrative of the steps he has already taken—no, the needle on the gauge isn’t stuck, and yes, he has already diverted fuel from engine one, to no avail—is enacted through a quick series of gestures at the instrument panel and punctuated by a few short utterances.

It is a model of collaborative efficiency, taking just 24 seconds. In the email world, the same exchange could easily involve several dozen messages—which, given the rapidly emptying fuel tank, is not ideal.

Useem says that it all comes down to the power of presence. One will happily ignore the serious philosophers who have been trying to downplay the power of presence, or the importance of communicating directly using voice and gestural cues. It is more efficient, more effective than writing. Surely, when it comes to dealing with children, the research has shown that  physical presence, the presence of a mother’s voice, is monumentally important.

Useem concludes:

The power of presence has no simple explanation. It might be a manifestation of the “mere-exposure effect”: We tend to gravitate toward what’s familiar; we like people whose faces we see, even just in passing. Or maybe it’s the specific geometry of such encounters. The cost of getting someone’s attention at the coffee machine is low—you know they’re available, because they’re getting coffee—and if, mid-conversation, you see that the other person has no idea what you’re talking about, you automatically adjust.


trigger warning said...

Telework is another Harvard Business School style bandwagon that tootled its way through business. Like older bandwagons, such as Six Sigma, the QC "revolution", and Japanese Management, various occupations and business processes can be more or less aappropriate and useful for telework et blahblah.

But, I suppose, it's all necessary to maintain the thriving Biz Book and Bandwagon Consulting and Seminar industry.

David Foster said...

"When it comes to teamwork, to groups of people collaborating, being in the office seems clearly to be preferable"

The problem with this argument is that the people who need to collaborate may well not be in the same physical place. This is particularly true of companies that have grown by merger/acquisition, but is not limited to them.

These decisions should not be made at a one-size-fits-all corporate level; they should be pushed down to lower levels of management that are more familiar with the specific needs of the work they are responsible for.

Ares Olympus said...

The issue isn't just "working from home" vs "working in the office", but also "flex-time". There are many tasks that don't require a great deal of interaction, and many tasks that require focused attention that can be more difficult under constant interruption.

At my office, a number of programmers and engineers post their schedules they'll be in the office, and days they'll work at, usually just one day a week, like Thursday or Friday. And some, including myself, go into work at minimum 5 days/week, although not necessarily 8 hrs of actual work, and often including evenings, and sometimes weekends, which are quieter times to work.

On the other side, smart phones show a different aspect of flex-time, where people will answer work-related messages, voice or email, 24/7, and may or may not be expected to do so. So it can be much harder to separate work vs personal time, and so a new guilt exists because its harder to "turn work off".

I really have to think the next "killer app" will be things in the realm of killing our addiction to multitasking, perhaps with "digital personal assistants" who can help us self-monitor our productivity and setting up barriers from distraction. And to satisfy Stuart, we'll also eventually learn some good manners over how we can interact with our phones while physical people around us want our undivided attention.

There are plenty of good reminders, if the ones we see in person fail to convince. Cartoon animation about smartphone addiction, 2:30

Sam L. said...

"As I look to my left, and then to my right, I see two other business-casual-clad men hammering away on their laptops beside me at a Starbucks just outside Chicago. They look productive." "...LOOK productive." But, ARE they? Or, are they reading blogs, or doing other non-business things? That's a mighty leap of faith by Mr. Useem, as I see it.

James said...

Are we to believe that people sometimes will not do their work when not directly supervised? Impossible, I don't believe it.

James said...

If in the last 100 yrs only 20% of the ingenuity that people use to get out of work was applied to space travel we would inhabit multiple galaxy's.

Linda Fox said...

I really do think it depends on the type of work:
- Teaching - unless it's a 1:1 tutoring situation, face-to-face is best. All teachers know that getting close to the students is the only way to get them to stay on task. I learned this, BIG time, when I broke my leg one year, and had difficulty moving around the room. The class quickly became unruly and unfocused.
- Sales - not necessary to go to the office, except for regular meeting/training. They need to be out of the office (and technology can be used to keep them on target with their goals).
- Managers - they should be close to those they manage. Which might better involve them getting to the person, not holing up in their office.

I'm betting that many of the remote workers who are less productive are moms. The interruptions would be difficult to work around.

James said...

Yes, you are right about it depends on the work involved. The key would be of course to have some way to measure the "worth" of the workers work if it's done away form the work site. Unfortunately that has been an elusive goal and easily gamed by all sorts of people. An example: When you taught you knew who was getting it and who was not, this from as you say from being close to them. But how do you achieve the same thing when you are charged with moving tens of thousands of students through a system? Many things have been tried and none that I know of have effectively replaced some type of testing.
When I was a "boss man" heh, my style was to identify the task to be done and in what time frame as clearly as possible. If it got done early say in 7 hours instead of 8 everyone went home early, but were still paid for 8 hours. Any static about this from above I dealt with (I believe that was my job).