With IBM's recent decision to require its employees to either move to one of the company's six location or leave, the decades-old question of the benefits of working from home (versus at the office) comes back to the forefront. IBM claimed it was making the decision to reverse a 19-quarter declining revenue trend. A similar decision made by Yahoo in 2013 didn't seem to have a positive impact on the company's performance. So is it a mistake?
As it happened, I had lunch yesterday with a former colleague, who is now working from his Plano, Texas, home for a large Silicon Valley company, whose closest office is about three hours away from his home, in Austin. I remember how excited he was to take that job two years ago, so I decided to ask him how happy he was. His answer was somewhat ambivalent. While he enjoyed the "freedom" and lack of commute, he missed being part of a team, the ability to bounce ideas off other people, and the camaraderie at the office. "I'm not as outgoing as you are," he told me, "but I still miss seeing other people in the team."
This brings up the question:
Why work from home?
It seems that companies initially offered the option to work from home in order to gain access to top talent who, recognizing their value, would not feel the need to relocate (with the family) to another city, just to join this one company. Telecommuting was a novelty, and companies that adopted it were considered innovative, creative, and, in other words, the companies that you wanted to work for. Added benefits included the elimination of commute time (and gas) in increasingly congested traffic, and the reduction in cost of office space. Plus, some employees prefer working in a suburban or even rural environment, where the probability that the company will build an office is slim to none.
So what wrong with working from home?
Impact on creativity
Without diving into my model of team creativity, which I have covered in multiple articles, I will simply state that for a team to be creative, it needs to be able to conduct a constructive conflict. Constructive conflict is the type that allows arguing passionately without letting it become personal and emotional. This ability depends on the existence of significant trust among team members. This trust stems out of mutual respect among team members to each other's competence and values, but turning that respect into trust takes time. But not only time. It is the amount of time spent together, multiplied by the intensity of those interactions (email has the lowest intensity, while a face-to-face meeting has the highest intensity), and multiplied by the positive nature of the interaction (obviously, a negative interaction would not accelerate trust). Working from home reduces the amount of time spent together, the intensity of interaction, and even the positive nature of it (you can't pat your teammate on the back when you are more than a thousand miles away). As a result, working from home has an adverse impact on team creativity. Even on individual creativity, as it is harder to validate your idea with your teammates. Finally, friendships at work contribute significantly to building trust. The ability to tap a teammate on the shoulder to go grab lunch together, or even go out after work, diminishes.
How far from the office?
You should also consider how far you are from the office when you work from home. Being 1,000 miles from the office makes face-to-face team meetings impossible, or very rare. The "commute" required to hold a team meeting is expensive, and takes a long time. On the other hand, being 50 or even 100 miles away from the office allows you to work from home some of the time, but doesn't impose too much of a hassle when you want to go to the office, perhaps once a week or every other week. Of course, this would eliminate a Silicon Valley company's ability to recruit top talent in Plano, Texas, and vice versa.
What type of job?
Some jobs require less interaction. A sales job and some customer service jobs, as a couple of examples, require less team interaction. Product development jobs require more creativity, and therefore higher levels of interaction. As a salesperson, it is more important to be closer to the customers than to the company's offices, anyway. But even with some of the more creative tasks, where heavy research is involved, you need time for yourself. Not everything is done as a team. In fact, having a quiet (assuming that it is quiet..) home office setting may allow you to concentrate better on your part, as long as you can eliminate distractions. Those jobs, though, would still require you to meet the team every now and then, so you can bounce ideas, share information, learn something new, ask questions, and make sure that your part of the overall development fits with the others. And, again, it would help build team trust.
What type of personality do you have?
For the most part, introverts prefer to be alone to be creative and productive, while extroverts draw their energy from having others around them. It takes both kinds to make a project, or a company, work. Furthermore, introverts do need some "team face time," and extroverts do need some time alone. The most creative work is done when there are times in which team members can be alone, and then meet to share ideas, progress, bounce crazy ideas around, get each other's support, continue to build trust, and then work alone some more, with more information, and better support.
What is the culture at the office?
Is the culture at the office supportive or detrimental to creativity and productivity? Demanding that employees work from an office in which the culture is detrimental to their creativity or productivity does more harm than good. Before IBM demands its employees move to one of its six offices, it must first conduct a survey of the culture in those offices. Not what management thinks it is, and not what the motivational signs on the walls or the mission and culture statements say, but what the employees who work there really feel, preferably anonymously. The company should then make the appropriate modifications to the culture (which could take a while) and get top management to commit to them and behave accordingly before they can expect that moving employees to the office will improve creativity and productivity.
A hybrid solution
As you can see, the issue is far from being black-and-white. It should be considered carefully, and individually. The best hybrid solution I could offer is to allow working from home within a certain distance of the office, a certain percentage of the time, depending on the type of job, and individual personalities. However, bringing employees to the office should only be done after assuring the right culture is in place.