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Tom Silva Headshot

Home or Office?

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Yahoo! has caused a stir because it is axing its telecommuting policy (unless you have a good reason). The dictum from HR goes like this: "From June all Yahoos will be required to turn up in the office unless they have a good excuse." The reason is, of course, productivity: Where Google's workers each generate $931,657 in revenue, Yahoo!'s employees deliver $353,657.

The memo has created a lot of discussion about the relative merits of letting workers dial into the office in their bathrobes. Conventional wisdom says that remote work causes the loss of culture and cohesion, the shirking of responsibilities and wasted hours. The only problem is that the statistics say otherwise. More than three million people work exclusively from home -- up more than 73 percent since 2005, and another 34 million people telecommute at least part of the time. In some places, such as Boulder, Colo., as much as 10 percent of the working population is exclusively home-based.

The reasons usually hinge on cost and quality. Cisco claimed in 2009 that it was saving $277 million a year by allowing its people to telecommute. And that doesn't even take into account the benefit to the environment of having people avoid commuting in their SUVs; according to a blog on, "the average telecommuter saves as much as $1,500 a year on gas." Aviva UK calculated that the carbon dioxide cost of a full meeting of their executive committee is 6.4 tonnes. A teleconference is usually shorter, to the point and lighter in its footprint.

A study of Chinese remote workers released last winter by Stanford University claimed that productivity, hours worked, and overall job satisfaction all went up by virtue of telecommuting. As the study reported, "home workers answered 15 percent more calls, partly because each hour was 4 percent more productive, and partly because home office employees spent 11 percent more time answering phone calls". While compelling, it should be noted that the study was conducted at an "airfare and ticketing office in Shanghai, where more than a thousand employees spent an average of 80 minutes -- and nearly 10 percent of their salaries -- commuting to endless rows of identical gray cubicles in two hangar-sized call centers." One wonders what the outcome might have been if they had selected architects or designers who rely on collaboration and who often work in cool spaces.

Still work at home has many high-level champions. In her feminist manifesto, "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead", Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote, that technology could revolutionize women's lives by "changing the emphasis on strict office hours since so much work can be conducted online." The fact is that telecommuting has allowed us to retain the talent and energy of women who choose to raise families and might have otherwise quit. In 2012, President Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act requiring all government agencies to develop strategies for moving employees off-site.

Of course the doubts about remote work imply that we still believe that the office is the most productive work environment, which ignores all the time spent at the water cooler and on the net checking Facebook. Mike Judge's Office Space is the iconic movie on this subject but the anecdotes support it: The Economist notes that Last year JC Penney found "that a third of the bandwidth at its headquarters was taken up by employees watching YouTube videos."

To make Yahoo!'s case, the best argument may be to focus on what the office does best. We are social animals and the office provides the best optics for the company -- its culture, its faces, its attitudes, its energy, its imagination. It reminds you what you're working for and towards. Remote work, on the other hand, can be isolating and solipsistic. Perhaps the best answer isn't one or the other but flexibility. A study by the Cranfield School of Management of 2,000 workers in the UK says that flextime people work more than people with fixed office hours. The reason, I suspect, has less to do with a particular arrangement than with the issue of trust. In return for companies treating workers like adults, employees tend to perform better as a sign of good faith. Rather than prescribing one workplace solution, leaving all options on the table may work best of all.