We’re still feeling our way in the world of telecommuting

Contributing writerMarch 3, 2013 

Business management and organization philosophies are as susceptible to fads and crazes as popular dances.

Companies plunge in enthusiastically and prove to be accomplished at the steps, while others can only clumsily mimic the moves. A few theories of how to run a business or manage employees actually deliver some of the promised benefits and endure; most, however, blaze brightly and briefly with books and seminars and consultants, only to burn out to become the Macarena or Gangnam style of their era.

The concept of telecommuting, however, was long believed by advocates to be far more than mere fad, far more important than seven habits of highly effective people or management by walking around or diversification or the Jack Welch school of corporate organization or countless others consigned to the archives of now-forgotten business obsessions.

Telecommuting wasn’t just going to remake the way modern businesses operate, although it was certainly going to do a lot of that. By harnessing the power of the Internet and telecommunications devices and networks, telecommuting would slim down and speed up business. No more wasted money on huge office campuses. No more wasted time on commuting, meetings, setting up meetings, getting everyone in one place for meetings or for idle chitchat at the water cooler (don’t need those either), in-office socializing or organizing March Madness office pools. Meetings could be held electronically. Information could be swapped via email and mobile device. Employees could work from home, or in the field with customers and clients.

What mattered was the amount of useful work getting done.

Result: More efficient and less costly company operations, more productive and happier employees who could devote the extra time to work or to family.

But telecommuting’s effects were to be felt far beyond the walls of the corporate or home office. Taking people off the highways and out of the morning and evening commutes would relieve traffic congestion and reduce the need to expand highway capacity. Society wins, too!

Telecommuting as a corporate operating philosophy has hung around a lot longer than many business fads, and it still has plenty of adherents. But it never swept the business world.

And now one major company in the tech industry is suggesting it’s not so fond of the idea.

In an internal memo to employees of Yahoo from human resources official Jackie Reses (the memo is headed “YAHOO! PROPRIETARY AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION — DO NOT FORWARD,” so of course it was immediately shared with the rest of the world), the company made it clear that telecommuting is no longer encouraged.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” says the memo, as reported by the tech news site AllThingsD.com. “That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.

“Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo offices.”

This is interesting on multiple levels and from multiple angles, starting with the fact that this public shift involves a company in the tech industry, normally seen as the most accepting and accommodating of work-from-home arrangements of any sector. Indeed, news accounts quoted many tech companies as saying they had no intention of following Yahoo’s lead.

But it also comes at a time when other fields are considering how to do more work remotely and electronically. Prime examples include education, in which classroom lectures and individualized instruction are moving online, and health care, where some diagnosis and patient communications are being done outside the traditional office-visit setting.

More broadly, Yahoo is giving public voice (although it didn’t intend it to be so public) to suspicions many businesses have long harbored about telecommuting: If I can’t see you, how do I know you’re really working and not just checking your Facebook page or looking up pictures of cats with misspelling-replete captions? True, you can do that at the office, too, but it gave management more comfort and feeling of control to be able to see their employees goofing off in person.

Many executives weren’t convinced that the distraction factor was any better or worse at the home or the office. Ditto for the debate over collaboration at the office vs. isolation at home (in many offices people deal with the quiet surroundings and potentially distracting conversations around them by donning headphones to listen to music, thus isolating themselves). Telecommuting isn’t going to fade from view. It has practical applications (bad weather days) and some companies and employees are diligent and effective at using it. But it’s also not likely to reshape the corporate world, much less society as a whole. Some companies and employees don’t like or aren’t good at telecommuting, and some jobs don’t lend themselves to it. The doctor might be able to diagnose you by a video link, but you still need to be in the vicinity of a needle if an injection is called for.

What will likely result is a sullen standoff between proponents and skeptics of telecommuting. Some companies will try it, like it and keep it. Others will abandon it, or never venture toward it in the first place. For the moment though, the highways will remain congested and the office parks are not in immediate danger of being drained of tenants and their employees.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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