Telecommuting: Dead or alive?

Moderated by Andrew Nusca | March 4, 2013 -- 07:00 GMT (23:00 PST)

Summary: Will Yahoo's 'no working from home' rule lead more of us back into the office? Should it?

Eileen Brown

Eileen Brown

Dead

or

Alive

Dan Kusnetzky

Dan Kusnetzky

Best Argument: Alive

19%
81%

Audience Favored: Alive (81%)

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Mic check

    Are my debaters standing by? First question coming right at 11am ET / 8am PT.

    And readers: Starting at 11am, this page should refresh automatically every time a new question or answer is posted. Thanks for joining us!

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Ready here

    Thrilled to be taking part in my first Great Debate...

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    Set to go...

    ...from the comfort of my home office. :-)

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Let's look at this step by step:

    What benefits does telework create for the company? 

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    If companies manage to get the correct balance...

    ...between remote and office working, provide the right technology enablers to allow their staff the option to work from home when they have to and provide a framework for governance, then staff will be motivated to work responsibly. According to the Telework Research Network, if those with compatible jobs and a desire to work from home did so half the time (roughly the national average for those who do so regularly) the national savings would total over $700 Billion a year including:

    • A typical business would save $11,000 per person per year
    • The telecommuters would save between $2,000 and $7,000 a year
    • The oil savings would equate to over 37% of our Persian Gulf imports
    • The greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce permanently off the road.

    Companies that offer the possibility to PARTLY, and during certain circumstances, work from home options will be a competitive factor in attracting high-potentials who are not interested in being chained to the assembly line.

     

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    Here are a few reasons why companies benefit from telework:

    • Companies are able to find and secure talent worldwide rather than limiting themselves to what is available locally. This also means that the company can attract the best and the brightest without forcing them to move.
    • Staff can be compensated at rates that are appropriate for their location rather than what is required at the company headquarters.
    • Facilities costs (Real estate acquisition, power, networking, taxes, facilities management, security and the like) can be much lower.
    • Travel costs can be lower. For example, a flight to San Francisco from Boston is much more expensive than a similar flight from a competitive market such as Tampa or Orlando.
    • Communications costs can be lower outside of large cities
    • Power costs can be lower outside of large cities.

     

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What benefits does telework create for the employee?


    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Focus and flexibility

    Ad-hoc teleworking gives employees the ability to get on with a particular project, focus on specific tasks and do admin. It also benefits workers who need to have a degree of flexibility to manage their day to day lives.

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    Here are a few reasons...

    • Positions can be found with exciting companies regardless of where they are. This can mean finding more rewarding work having a higher-than-average compensation package than available locally.
    • Employees can learn leading edge technology that might be too costly for local companies to afford.
    • Home costs (Real estate acquisition, power, networking, taxes, and the like) can be much lower.
    • Position requirements can be addressed anywhere power and communications are available. This would make it possible to stay at home to help family members or work from desirable locations. It also means that work can be done at times best suited to the worker rather than in a strict "9 to 5" timeframe.
    • Staff can wear whatever clothing they'd like (as long it their choice doesn't offend the cat or dog).
    • Noise and interruptions coming from coworkers can be kept to a minimum making it easier to be productive

     

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What drawbacks does telework create for the company?


    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Disconnection and fragmentation

    When a company needs to change direction, implement a new strategy or advertise new initiatives it needs to have a cohesive workforce. Remote workers that never come into the office do not ‘gel’ with their colleagues, are less likely to engage deeply, trust or value the contributions of their other colleagues and are therefore less likely to innovate as a group entity. This will lead to disconnection and fragmentation in teams and companies over time.

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    A few drawbacks...

    Here are a few drawbacks telework creates for the company:
    • Management must embrace a management by requirements and deadlines style rather than by walking around and seeing staff work.
    • Management must be willing to go to the effort to routinely reach out to remote employees to understand what they are doing and if there are problems that need to be addressed.
    • Management must be willing to use audio and video conferencing as well as instant messaging and Email to keep connected with remote staff. This also means that the company's collaborative application licensing, processing and storage costs might be higher.
    • Networking and network security costs can be higher.
    • The IT department is likely to have to support a broader range of end-point devices that might include PCs, Macs, tablets and smartphones.

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    And...what drawbacks does telework create for the employee?


    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Passive face time

    A London Business School/University of California study found remote workers may get smaller pay rises and fewer promotions. But from the perspective of hundreds of corporate workers, including both managers and subordinates, when assessing the leadership traits and dependability, the difference seems to be something the report calls passive face time. Passive face time indicates that you need to be seen in the workplace, regardless of what you are doing or how well you are doing it.

    The report says that particularly in white-collar environments, the presence or absence of passive face time may be used to influence the fitness of employees for leadership. The two types of passive face time are: Expected face time ─ being seen at work during normal business hours ─ and extracurricular face time, where an employee is seen at work outside normal business hours.

    Different evaluations of work traits showed that expected face time led to perceptions of traits of “responsible” and “dependable”. Without doing anything in particular, people thought more highly of these colleagues. For those working extracurricular time, evaluations could be expected to be upgraded to “committed” and “dedicated.”


    For those explicitly searching a strong career development, working from home will not get them to the career stage they want any quicker than those working at the office.

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    Here are a few drawbacks for staff in a telework environment:

    • It might be necessary to work in the middle of the night, on weekends and even when sick to meet deadlines

    • Many managers have an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to management. This means that the remote staff member might get little help, little encouragement and be missed when it comes time for promotions.

    • Non-communicative coworkers can make meeting project deadlines challenging

    • Obtaining aid from company resources can be challenging

     

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    This isn't a black-and-white situation.

    At what shade of gray can telework become isolating? Where along the spectrum does it become negative and not positive?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Three days per week

    If the employee works from home more than three days per week then the employee can start to disengage from the rest of the team. Working remotely 100% of the time can lead isolation, disillusionment of the organisation and a loss of team spirit. Creativity is stifled due to this isolation that remote workers feel. They miss out on corridor conversations, they don’t get to feel the day to day the pulse of the business and they don’t get the energy from interacting from their peers.

    Occasional teleworking can be beneficial when things need to get done. Workers that are at home more often than they are in the office find that their priorities can shift away from the corporate goals.

     

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    There are a few situations in which telework can become a negative...

    • If the company is financially challenged, remote workers are often the first to get the ax. In challenging times, remote staff may find it more difficult to find a new position.
    • If management isn't helpful or supportive, obtaining aid from company resources can be challenging. Furthermore, staff can believe that their work is not being properly valued and that promotions and compensation increases difficult to obtain.
    • It's impossible to "catch a coworker" when he/she is walking down the hall to obtain or give information quickly. Scheduling "a meeting" with busy coworkers can be challenging.

     

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    For whom is telecommuting best?

    What types of employees, in which situations?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Telecommuting can work well for some job functions...

    ...especially in the technology industry. Call centre staff, technical writers and help desk workers could easily work from home.

    However, even journalism benefits from an office environment. Bouncing stories around, sharing titbits of information, working a story up to completeness is best carried out in a lively newsroom type environment. Side comments, jokes, and extra information is often not shared due to the overhead of typing into an Instant Message window, or the uncertainty of not knowing who might be listening out of sight of the video camera. Information, gossip and confidences are shared around the water cooler – around the desk.

    Imagine an orchestra rehearsing remotely. Jamming sessions work best when the musicians are in the same room, discussing tuning options and potential new harmonies. Even with superfast broadband speeds and excellent video quality to see the conductor with no broadband latency, the effect of the musical experience would be lost. Imagine actors rehearsing their lines remotely. The drama of the play would be lost and acting nuances missed.

    Some job roles are not suitable for working remotely. The little screen in your home office is not enough to give you the big picture about what is happening in the workplace.

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    Telecommuting is best for staff who travel a great deal and who work independently.

    Positions in industries --  such as retail, healthcare, manufacturing and food service -- that require seeing customers at a store, hospital, clinic or making products at a factory are not very good fits for telework.

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What would motivate Marissa Mayer to implement such a policy at Yahoo?

    Be as specific as possible in connecting cause and effect.

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Yahoo is in trouble, losing revenue and struggling to innovate.

     Mayer wants to ensure an ‘all hands to the pump’ exercise to turn this ailing company around. She wants to being the company together to share their knowledge and get them working ideas together to bring innovation back to Yahoo. She started with re-energizing the workplace at Yahoo. She brought in free food and gave her staff smartphones to motivate them. She is now implementing more discipline in product development and bringing in accountability amongst the company.

    This decision is what is right for Yahoo as a company at the moment. It can be difficult to recognize key personnel when you never see them in person all day long, and there is a certain energy that is only transmitted in a group setting. Yahoo risks sliding further and the only way to make it back to positive growth is to change the organisational culture. This move to bring home workers back into the office is only the beginning of the strategy. Next Mayer will be to introduce products and services that positively distinguish it from competitors. Products and services that will make the company indispensable to its customers as it claws its way back.

    Get everyone back in the office. Re-educate them to look at the BIG picture instead of just the little picture they see on the monitor at home. Maybe once the re-education is complete and an internal evaluation of which employees can work remotely. Yahoo can again let some employees with an appropriate business justification work from home.

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    Yahoo can be seen as a company in distress.

    Many of its recent programs didn't have the desired result. Marissa appears to be trying to gather her troops together in the hopes of fixing those problems. Although she came from a highly distributed environment (Google), she appears to believe that the culture of Yahoo hasn't created the necessary focus on projects she thinks important.

     

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What do you predict will happen at Yahoo, given this mandate?


    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    A company turn-around

    Staff that do not want to relocate, arrange full time childcare, or who become disillusioned by the mandate will leave the company.

    Underperforming workers that do not like the extra attention focused upon them whilst they are in the office will either step up to the mark and perform as required or be managed out. This attrition will leave space for Yahoo to hire local energised talent that are happy with partial teleworking and working in the office. Yahoo will go some way to reinvent itself like other technology companies that have workers who primarily work in the office.

    Ultimately this pulling together of the whole company, working as a cohesive face to face team exchanging ideas, inspiration and innovation, will turn this ailing company around.

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    This appears to be a very short sighted, knee-jerk response to the issue.

    Workers who have been allowed to work remotely are likely to feel like a basic part of their employment agreement is being receded unilaterally.

    I project that staff members who have other opportunities will take them and leave the company. I also project that other IT companies are likely to seek out the best of Yahoo's remote talent to talk them into working for them rather than for Yahoo.

    I also project that staff that can document that remote work was part of their employment agreement with the company are likely to take legal action and, at the very least, demand compensation for loses on the sale of their homes, costs of moving a home, costs of buying a new home in a different location and the like.

    I'm reminded of an attempt by a DEC VP to declare that all of New England was a single work area so that people who drove from company facilities in Massachusetts wouldn't be compensated for travel costs (mileage and fuel costs) when attending meetings in New Hampshire. Productivity slowed down because team members wouldn't drive to out-of-the-office meetings at other DEC facilities. If I remember correctly the company was told by state officials that this wasn't legal.

     

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    For which industries would this policy make the most sense?


    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Creativity feeds off creativity

    So any industry that needs to be creative, brainstorm and create magic needs its workers to be together bouncing ideas off each other, working, noodling, discussing, brainstorming and experimenting with new ideas. Any industry that needs to develop a new identity – to re-invent itself in the face of mounting competition needs to bring everyone together to work as one.

    The Yahoo bus will be driving in a new direction – and any passengers that do not want to take this new route should think about getting a different bus.

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    Depends on the job

    Many staff functions must be done in the store, the office, the clinic or the manufacturing plant. Telework just isn't an option. Requiring staff to come to work at a company location is clearly a part of the position.

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Examples?

    Give some examples of companies that have distributed workforces and proven track records.

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Twitter uses Mechanical Turk workers...

     ...to effectively identify its search queries as soon as they are trending. The queries are sent to real humans to be judged and then incorporated into the back end systems to bring more relevant search results. The back end system tracks statistics and monitors for spikes in these searches. The search is then sent to human evaluators, who will add context to the query such as images or add extra information to describe if the query relates to people, places or events.

    After the remote human response is received, the information is then fed in to the back end systems to improve the context of the search response the next time the term is searched for. Tasks are sent to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a vast available crowdsourced workforce on hand around the world to help with queries, categorising them and putting them in context. Using crowdsourced remote workers from around the world enables Twitter to select ‘highly trusted’ judges from ‘the best of Mechanical Turk’ across all of the languages used by Twitter. Twitter says that it is also easier to scale the workforce when required.

    Every school in the US has local workforces – and results that vary according to the individual school. Every hospital has a local workforce, saving lives and curing illness every day. Most retail organisations have local workforces. Even Amazon needs people in the distribution centre to get the packages onto the trucks and delivered to the customer.

     

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    A who's who of IT

    The list of companies that have distributed workforces reads like the who's who of information technology. Every major hardware, software and services provider allows workers to telecommute. Other companies that have remote sales, sales support and service personnel also allow telework.

    Proving that telework is viable isn't really necessary today.

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    OK, last question:

    How much of this should we attribute to management strategy, versus technology?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Technology is a great enabler ...

    ...helping road warriors to stay connected and national availability of broadband and easily accessible public wifi have also their parts to play.  

    But good governance should be put in place, managers should ensure that they are effectively managing the activities of their teams and provide the ability to work remotely without isolating the teams. Teams should recognise the need to work in the office at least two day per week to immerse themselves in corporate culture and team spirit.

    Without good connectivity, access to Line Of Business (LOB) applications  and tools to help workers do their day jobs as effectively as they were in the office, remote working is just sitting at home hoping the phone will ring. It is demoralising and ultimately detrimental to the brand.

    Eileen Brown

    I am for Dead

    It's clear to me that this is an act of desperation.

     

    It is clear that Yahoo's management doesn't really know how to use today's audio and video conferencing tools or today's collaborative software as part of a set of management practices. Why is it clear? Others in the same or similar industries are quite successful with a distributed workforce.

     

    Dan Kusnetzky

    I am for Alive

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks, Eileen and Dan

    And thanks readers for joining us. Check back tomorrow, when our debaters post their closing arguments. On Thursday, I will issue my verdict. Readers can cast *their* vote any time.


    Posted by Andrew Nusca

Talkback

42 comments
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  • Alive.

    Alive.

    Not every business will do it, but some will. So it's not dead.

    But it's not for every business, either.

    Sometimes I wonder if ZDNet bloggers truly understand the concept of "different businesses have different needs."

    "Will Yahoo's 'no working from home' rule lead more of us back into the office? Should it?"

    It shouldn't. A business should ALWAYS be making its own decisions independently. It should not be following a herd mentality of "do everything the same way as everybody else."
    CobraA1
    Reply 10 Votes I'm Undecided
    • It's not what a lot of people think it is

      Telecommuting in the sense of business travel has changed drastically in the last 20-25 years. There were many times back in the 80's or 90's when we would fly all over for meetings but we do that a lot less now.

      As far as day to day work, telecommuting has its' place. I like working remotely once in a while but it helps to physically be around the team. Flexibility is an asset.
      Schoolboy Bob
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
  • What a moronic question.

    Of course it's alive, the technology is only getting better. Just look at Google hangout, everything you need for a remote conference is there.
    T1Oracle
    Reply 1 Vote I'm for Alive
    • Broadband Required First

      No chance here only to remain stuck on dial-up BB speeds once Tony gets in come September...
      grump-a1eeb
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
      • That's fine for you but

        The question is whether it is dead or alive, not whether or no some people still can't take advantage of it. Enough people have broadband for this to work for many corporations. If you can't use it, tough luck, that doesn't mean I won't be using it.

        Actually, if it snows in DC tomorrow I will be telecommuting to work. It's not dead for me or the large company I work for.
        T1Oracle
        Reply Vote I'm Undecided
    • Technology may be getting better

      but technology is usually better than some people will ever be.

      There are 3 kninds of workers. Those that can work remotely with minimal/no distractions. Those that work better closer to the team where closeness helps them focus. And those that need to be in the office with a hot poker in the back to keep them productive.

      I've worked in a cube for 13 years, 6 years on a technical bench and 12 years in a home office. If your boss thinks that you can be trusted, and earned it, fine. If not then prepare for the drive because you MAY have earned that too.
      dave01234
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
    • Moronic Question?

      No, it's not. I have to admit there might be an attempt to paint the whole world the same color because in some cases it can work well and in other cases it's not practical while in yet others a mix of home/office works very well. You can't just make one blunt, irresponsible statement and expect to garner a readership from it.

      I often worked from home as Director of North America and Pac Rim offices and used the phone/emails for communications, depending on the immediacy of the situation. Working this way saved the company gobs of money in travel and even created some lasting relationships amongst the employees around the world.
      I still went to the offices for all meetiings, confidential work and large, world-wide conference calls to keep the foreign offices all up to date.

      It's meaningless, really, what the vote might be, as it is what it is and smart companies will manage it to their best advantage.
      tom@...
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
  • Depends on the person and circumstances...

    If someone can prove they are responsible, can get work done, and still keep the lines of communication going, then they should be able to work from home.

    I still believe showing up at least 1-2x a week is good though, but cmon don't act like anybody dreams up great work ideas by talking at a watercooler. They are usually talking about their kids, or last night's tv show or sports game.
    dtdono0
    Reply Vote I'm for Alive
  • Lazy

    I have to drive to work so why shouldn't everyone?

    People that "work" from home spend 80% of their time doing NOTHING productive
    jimbritttn
    Reply 1 Vote I'm for Dead
    • lazy?

      Sounds to me like you are the type who SHOULD be closely supervised.
      Jim Johnson
      Reply 4 Votes I'm Undecided