Thursday, February 28, 2013

Shirk work? Working at home can mean longer hours -- Feb. 28, 2013 column


Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer has decreed that workers must start showing up at the office.

Uh, oh. What if her employees get less work done -- not more?

Contrary to what many employers think, telecommuters actually work more overtime than their office-bound colleagues, Mary C. Noonan of the University of Iowa and Jennifer L. Glass of the University of Texas at Austin reported last June in “Monthly Labor Review.” 

In their article, titled “The hard truth about telecommuting,” the sociologists say people who work regularly, but not exclusively, at home work between five and seven hours more per week than those in the office.   

Noonan and Glass studied telecommuting trends of nearly 67,000 workers from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s and found that telecommuters were far less likely to work a regular schedule and more likely to work more than 40 hours a week.  

Fans laud telecommuting for everything from reducing traffic congestion and air pollution to boosting productivity and promoting work-life balance. Employees in cubicles dream of padding down the hall in their slippers to sit at their computers and having more time for children and other relatives. But the study suggests a dark side to telecommuting: It may allow employers to increase or intensify work demands among salaried employees. 

Mayer stunned not only Yahoo employees but the 21st century workplace when her human resources chief sent an internal memo telling employees “We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together.” Angry employees leaked the memo to Kara Swisher at All Things D, a site that covers the digital world.

The memo raises an intriguing point. What are we missing with our reliance on email and texting? “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” the memo said.

The irony was delicious, an Internet search company insisting that people chat face to face. How quaint. What’s next – typewriters and carbon paper?

Mayer, who was hired to breathe life into Yahoo, became its chief executive at 37 while pregnant with her first child. Working women hoped that she, of all people, would be sympathetic to the needs of other working moms. She reportedly lavished free food and iPhones on Yahoo employees. When that didn’t turn the company around, she reined in the troops – and reaped criticism from all sides.

Even fellow CEOs questioned her judgment. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, blogged about trust. “To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision,” he wrote.  

No one would argue with the value of trust in the workplace, but what happens when the trust is abused? The New York Times reported that some Yahoo employees used their working time at home to start their own businesses.

Several studies have found that telecommuting improves productivity. To spark innovation, though, research suggests interaction is key. Yahoo joins a few other large corporations that have upset workers by requiring them to show up.

The uproar strikes many as rich people’s problems. Most Americans juggle jobs and family without the luxury of being able to work at home. 

White, college-educated managers and professionals are far more likely to telecommute than is the population as a whole. Telecommuters are less likely to be black and Hispanic. Noonan and Glass also found that while many companies say they have flexible workplace policies, the rate of telecommuting has stayed at about 17 percent through the mid-2000s.

The federal government has increased telecommuting. Three years ago, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sponsored the first White House forum on workplace flexibility. In December 2010, the president signed the Telework Enhancement Act, requiring federal agencies to promote working remotely.

Yahoo intends to be “the absolute best place to work,” the memo said. Mayer may yet discover that more work gets done at home than in the hallway and cafeteria.   

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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