The myth of the tele-less office

Divya Karthikeyan, Shaohan Chen and Wendy Xue

The recent decision of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who banned Yahoo employees from telecommuting to work, has stirred up a lot of debates. In an internal memo from Yahoo released on the blog post on All Things D , Yahoo executives argued, “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” Their remedy reads, “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together”(I). Many people posted their comments online once the news broke out on various website. Most hold negative opinions on such a decision. Some complained that banning telecommuting would hurt employees’ productivity. Some argued forcing people to be in office was a management style too out of date. Some saw this action as a morale killer. But we believe the impact of banning telecommuting from work practice has far reaching impacts on the organization than causing many employees to be grumpy. Like one of the commenters said about Yahoo’s decision, “the year is 2013, not 1980” (II). Telecommuting has grown to be a part of normal work practice especially in the software industry. It is a practice so ubiquitous in the industry that people think more of it as a right instead of a privilege. Moreover, it allows work to be distributed regardless of locations.

Just like when it was first introduced into the workspace, revoking the right to telework from one’s home will have various impacts on organizational processes, corporate culture and physical working environment. In Yahoo’s situation, having everyone working physically in the office might require the organization to change its performance process. Some of the things employees worried about might turn out to be true. In-person communication skills might have a bigger weight on an employee’s performance evaluation. Some managers might see punctuality and attendance being an indicator of whether an employee is engaging in work or slacking off. There could be culture changes. While many people were working from home before, work might be distributed in ways that emphasize individual contribution and require little collaboration. Now with everyone physically close to each other, work might be done more collectively. In addition, communication might become shorter, but more frequent and oral. It’s possible that due to the number of employees present at the same time in the office, managers have difficulty to give enough attention to individual team members. This could drive teams to become smaller with fewer employees to manage. Physical arrangement of the office also needs to adapt to the absence of telecommuting. More people at work means more offices, more office supplies, and more amenities such as coffee stations, kitchens and bathrooms. All of that consequently drive up a company’s operating costs. Maybe the increase is so big that it shrinks the budget for employee benefits. All these possible scenarios are not speculations coming from thin air. We must understand that telecommuting has played an important role in the software industry. A company that attempts to change its role will have to deal with all the consequential impacts on various fronts.

Many small companies in the industry embrace telecommuting wholeheartedly. To understand their reasoning, we turn back to the history of telecommuting. Telecommuting first began in the 80′s as part of the environment movement to decrease transportation costs as well as pollutions. As the technological developments in the 90′s emerged, telecommunication tools such as phone, fax, email, cell phone and video conferences further strengthened the foundation of telecommuting. One of the most  common situations for most startup companies is the limited resources for doing business. It is especially true for limited physical spaces and budgets, which led small business operators to promote telecommuting in order to save the spaces for desk, seat, meeting room and paper storages as well as budgets for transportation and facilities maintenance.

Moreover, the affordance of telecommuting is also suitable for startup environment. Telecommuting provide more flexible working schedules, which is suitable for people who work most efficiently if there are no constraints on the work time and places. Especially during the initial development phase of the startup companies, since people tend to work extremely long hours, commuting becomes a waste of time and invites unnecessary interruptions. Besides, telecommuting provides privacy for people during work, and some people think privacy will help them concentrate on their work because they don’t have to care about the surroundings.

Finally, the organizational process design of startup companies also benefit the adoption of telecommuting. Since the team collaboration is designed for small teams, it is easier to communicate through phone, email and video conference. The nature of startup organizational process can also simply be adopted by remote collaboration, since the fewer people get involved in a project, the easier work can be broken down and the interactions can be deeper.

Working in office and interacting with people in person or working from home is a role that is played by anyone who works for a company. The introduction/revoking of telecommuting all of a sudden into their work lifestyle is not going to be easy. Any new technology includes a wide range of process, organizational and personal changes that have to be adopted. As we have seen above, to a smaller startup that grew up with virtual workspaces, the concept of telecommuting is not new. But for some Yahoo employees who were used to working from home, the introduction of compulsory in office work hours meant introduction of travel time in their schedule, importance of communication skills, long hours in office, less flexibility etc. This would demand huge changes in their daily routine which is not very easy to adapt to.

Striking a parallel to paperless office, paper also plays a role in the day to day lives of many and a sudden introduction/revoking may not be easy to accept. In addition to the affordances of paper,  the role that paper has played is huge. Hence to replace paper, large constitutional or process changes would be required on an organizational and personal level. Also the prior interactions with paper plays a huge role in how easy it would be to adapt to an entirely paperless environment.

The myth of a paperless office would thus seem like an attainable goal we are gearing towards for someone who has had very minimal interactions with paper, and it would seem more like trying to catch an unreachable dream for people who have paper playing an integral part in their lives.







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