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Posted on March 10th, 2013 by Tim Danton

Home working vs the office: the final word

Marissa Mayer

MIT’s Bill Aulet kicked off his SXSW session – 1 Coffee Pot, Many Disciplines: Why Space Matters – with a simple question: who agrees with Marissa Mayer when she demands that all Yahoo staff must work in the company office?

The yeses went first. I kind of agreed, but not enough to put up my hand. Then went the nos. I was closer to no than yes, so I put up my hand. But it took the rest of the talk to make me realise quite why I was so hazy on the matter.

Let me quote you the most pertinent paragraph from the leaked Yahoo memo:

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. 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.”

I’ve seen writers churn out thousands of words in a day, which would be impossible for them in the interruption-laden environment of an office

Now some of that makes absolute sense. Who could argue against the importance of communication and collaboration? And I have no problem with the idea that great insights come from the random bumps of an in-office team, nor with the positive effect of impromptu meetings.

But the rest of it – well, I always felt it was a vast, sweeping statement to suggest that speed and quality are sacrificed when working from home. For some people, sure. I’m lousy at working from home. I get distracted by everything from the sound of the kettle switching on to thoughts about dinner that night. I have no such issues when I’m in the office.

But I’m also aware that some people work supremely well in a home environment. I’ve seen writers churn out thousands of words in a day, which would be impossible for them in the interruption-laden environment of an office.

Bill Aulet made a similar, if not better, point about programmers. Their productivity goes up in anti-exponential fashion, starting slow for the first 15 minutes until they really start working – and then just keep on churning out code until their concentration breaks or an interruption happens. “Bill,” a programming colleague told him, “you interrupt me every 12 minutes.”

Now that doesn’t mean all programmers must work from home, but it does show the potential power of flexible working. And Aulet made another excellent point in his presentation: you need to think about the kind of company you are, the kind of work you do, and the point you have reached in your growth before you start working out flexible-working policies.

“You have to think about the balance between the value of interaction and the value of focus, between efficiency and innovation,” said Aulet (I may be misquoting him slightly, but that was very much the thrust of his point).

To me, that’s not the sort of statement you can apply to a whole company. That’s a department within it, possibly even a sub-department. If you work in a division that needs to produce loads of new ideas, you should probably work together. If you then get told, “make that idea happen”, it could be time to head out of the office where you won’t be interrupted.

So, Marissa, I come back to you. Do you really think it makes sense to lay down a blanket judgement on all 11,700 of your employees that they can no longer work from home? I’m putting up my hand with a hell of a lot more conviction this time.

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14 Responses to “ Home working vs the office: the final word ”

  1. Alan Wood Says:
    March 10th, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Workplaces need private offices where people can get work done with a guarantee that no one will come in and disturb them. Open plan is useless for getting real stuff done.

  2. Ben Says:
    March 10th, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    Agreed, I’m a programmer and I only have certain times of the day when I am in the zone and the code is spewing forth. Being distracted then is a nightmare. The rest of the time I am browsing the net so the zone time is really important for getting anything finished. Bring back cubicles for programmers!

  3. bg Says:
    March 10th, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    The various companies that are putting forth this dictate don’t give a fig about creativity/productivity they only care about paying rent on expensive buildings with expensive infrastructure that are empty.

    It just a cost thing.

  4. bookmac Says:
    March 10th, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Company says no…you deal with it or walk basically.

  5. nick allison Says:
    March 11th, 2013 at 7:39 am

    I work in Construction. As a surveying engineer. Working from home? Not really going to get a lot done.
    It does highlight a major problem with reporting this issue. Journalists, who by necessity work (at least, are based) in offices, have no experience of vast swathes of the workforce, that have no option but to turn up at work.

  6. David Wright Says:
    March 11th, 2013 at 9:31 am

    I agree Nick, many professions can’t do home working. For others, it can work.

    But, even for those that can work at home, you run the risk of alienating them, because they are “out of the loop”. IM and web conferences help to a certain extent, but nothing can replace actually being physically in the office, at least some of the time.

    It is like sales reps, they spend a lot of time on the road, but they come back to base at regular intervals to catch-up with paperwork and interact with their peers.

    For example, there is a big difference between seeing a new product in a web conference video and actually handling the thing. Only once you start interacting with something do you start to really understand how it works and then come the questions.

    I went through a certain version of this, I worked for a large consultancy and in 15 years, I spent maybe 6 months working from my base office, I was literally sent from one project to another and never really got to know my colleagues. After a bout of illness, I didn’t have a new project, so I went to base and was expected to use my contacts within the company to find a new project, as most of the people I had worked with on projects over the years had left the company and because I didn’t know anybody at the main office, it was very difficult to fit in and find the next project!

    If I had had the opportunity to regularly network with my colleagues, the situation would have been a lot different and finding new work would have been a lot easier.

    Essentially, I have nothing against home working, even on a regular basis, but never going into the office is a bad thing.

  7. Lomskij Says:
    March 11th, 2013 at 10:01 am

    @nick allison

    Of course. The same goes to police officers, nurses, school teachers, etc. The only problem is that this particular article (and the website itself, actually) is about the IT, not the *general* workforce.

    As a programmer myself, I’ve noticed that coding goes probably twice as fast when I’m working from home. I really hate when you try really hard to concentrate and then some idle colleague wanders around looking for a chat. I guess that part of the problem is that because of some weird social rules, you can’t just tell them to “p*ss off, I’m busy!”.

  8. Andrew GRAY Says:
    March 11th, 2013 at 11:53 am

    How can a comms company come up with such a dictat. Kind of defeats the object somewhat.

  9. Alan Mcmillan Says:
    March 11th, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    When I worked as a programmer at Lotus back in the 90’s’ each dev team had designated ‘quiet times’ where they could hang a sign outside there section saying they were not to be disturbed for anything. Even friends stayed away, no casual chats or anything. It worked great for coding.

    I don’t think companies do that anymore, so I work from home

  10. Alan Wood Says:
    March 11th, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    I worked with someone who wore a baseball cap when he didn’t want to be disturbed. It worked fine as long as everyone knew the rules.

  11. Synaptic Fire Says:
    March 13th, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    I prefer to work from my office as much as possible. But then my ‘office’ is my local boozer.

    Never underestimate how much networking can be done at the pub.

  12. Ruth Says:
    March 14th, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    I so agree with David: “but never going into the office is a bad thing”. However, I do think it’s reasonable for people to work from home sometimes – perhaps 1 day/week or “as required”.

    He went on to talk about sales people, and I know I have been irritated that some people, though nominally based at the office I’ve been at, have never actually been available: even when in the office they have booked themselves wall-wall.

    I also agree that programming is something you need to get serious amounts of distraction-free time, and I for one find that hard in open-plan office space.

    There might be a compromise of “team” space: areas of 3-5 desks for close colleagues, but I think that would be around the limit.

    I like Alan’s “baseball cap” comment… not sure it’s my style though :-)

  13. Dave Says:
    March 28th, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    I’d do whatever Marissa told me…….

  14. Emily Says:
    December 12th, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    I am a full time home worker and can do my job better from home than I can if I go to the office. However, there is a strong feeling, for many, of disengagement with the rest of the team, and I am sure there is a lot of work that just can’t be done from the home office (As Nick mentioned, he is in Construction and much of this would be challenging!)

    The open plan office space however, just doesn’t work well. The noise & distractions, I have no idea how you manage it!

    We have a UK Homeworkers group on LinkedIn where we’re actually discussing how homeworkers manage the challenges of not being in the office

    Anyway, I think there is a balance, but it is different for each person, depending on their job type, their ability & the willingness of management to try it out. I think there is a great deal of positive that can come out of homeworking, and it’s a shame to see the likes of Yahoo bosses etc. knock them on the head.


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