Who doesn’t want to work from home? Trading in suits for sweatpants (or dialing into a conference call with no pants)–it’s the American Dream. Or some version of it. It’s a benefit that has become critical for retaining millennials, and key to keeping the best employees from bolting in general.
But not everyone is buying into the trend, and it turns out it’s not a productivity panacea.
As The Atlantic recently reported, IBM announced they were joining Yahoo, Best Buy, and Aetna in unwinding their work from home policy.
That IBM has joined the reversal revelry is particularly surprising as they were one of the original pioneers of working from home. In fact, as one report noted:
As early as the 1980s, the company had installed “remote terminals” in several employees’ homes. And by 2009, when remote work was still, for most, a novelty, 40 percent of IBM’s 386,000 global employees already worked at home (the company noted that it had reduced its office space by 78 million square feet and saved about $100 million in the US annually as a result).
In every case, the companies have sustained serious backlash and yet they persist (for the most part) with the call to trade in comfy for cubicle.
Well, not for little cause.
It turns out there are plenty of studies that argue that working from home does not boost productivity. Before you cry foul, note what happens when you consider different types of productivity.
As The Atlantic reported:
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.
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.
In fact, research by Dr. Ben Waber, a visiting scientist at MIT, points out that “chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers improve performance”. This is why thought leaders like Google built a new HQ designed to maximize chance encounters, why Facebook has thousands of employees in a single mile-long room and why Zappos uses a metric called “collisionable hours” to measure office space effectiveness.
I want to state that I’m a big advocate of working from home. It’s going to become a baseline expectation for more and more people and a competitive disadvantage for companies that don’t embrace it. If companies don’t trust their employees to work remotely, then they don’t remotely have a clue of how to hire people you can trust in the first place.
That said, the point on collaborative efficiencies is hard to ignore.
I offer no cut and dry resolution to this debate–but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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This article by Scott Mautz also appeared on Inc.com. To read more Inc. articles by Scott Mautz, click here.