Working remotely: It’s good, right?

Working remotely: It's good,  right?

This post is from staff writer Sarah Gilbert.

I’ve done it all; worked remotely, worked in an office with a serious in-traffic commute, worked in an office with a short commute, worked for myself, and worked for Fortune 100 corporations. I’ve worked 80 hours weeks and I’ve worked 10 hours a week part-time. I’ve been overpaid and underpaid. I’ve worked at $2.13 an hour with tips. I’ve worked hourly with overtime. I’ve been given a bonus bigger than my annual salary. I’ve managed people, hired people, fired people, and managed a team of dozens of freelance contractors. I’ve even managed groups of volunteers.

Never, however, have I been more certain that someone had the whole concept of human nature as it relates to work more wrong than when reading recent news that Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer was telling her remote employees to come into an office or lose their jobs. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home, ” says the memo.

Lots of people agree: some people are lazy

I have done many wrongs in my career, but I can guarantee you that quality and speed were never positively correlated to my presence in an office. I can equally say that the most effective work I’ve ever seen done — the highest-speed work, the best quality work, the most kick-butt, forward-thinking work — was done by a group of freelance contractors, many of whose faces I never ever once saw.

Studies show that remote workers are more engaged in their tasks. And I have lots of anecdotal evidence to back that up, including a few friends who work remotely at Yahoo! — I’ve rarely seen such all-the-time dedication to their jobs. To think those employees would be more engaged and have better “speed” and “quality” of work if they moved to Los Angeles, bought cars, and commuted a few hours a day in one of the worst traffic cities in the world, leaving their children with nannies a few more hours each day? I can tell you if it were me, I’d be resentful and bitter (like so many people I’ve known who spend hours each day in their car), often spending hours at the office following up on auto insurance claims, dealing with paperwork for day cares and summer camp applications, or shopping for clothes to wear to the office.

Working in the office is a time sink in itself

Driving to and from work each day is a social construct that requires an enormous amount of upkeep, and includes an equally enormous amount of social inefficiency. A recent interview with a knitting writer I admire prompted hundreds of comments, including one woman who was shocked, after taking an in-office job for the first time, at the many hours of time wasted with pointless meetings and social interactions (like a co-worker who demanded help figuring out a basic software package).

This is not to say that every job ever should be done by remote workers; this is not to say that all people are more efficient in the home than in the office. Judging by the number of people I see every day working in coffee shops, I imagine that there are lots of home environments not at all conducive to work.

But I think most reasonable people would agree that the commuting, the lunch-getting, the requirements of hygiene and wardrobe, the social niceties, the gossiping and the scheduling, the fact that human brains do not work well sitting quietly in front of a screen for eight-to-10 hours a day, all add up to lots of lost “productivity.”

I get more productive investment banking done working from home, 15 hours a week, than I did as a 20-something banker in 40 hours in the office. And I make more money, too, because I don’t have to spend any of it on commuting, lunches out, clothes or the inevitable social functions (and none on the near-compulsory United Way!).

The higher the quality of life, the better the quality of work

What it comes down to in my opinion is a truth often acknowledged by researchers but rarely honored by the way corporate environments (and, in fact, a good deal of our modern work economy) are created: if you are happy with the quality of your life, you will be a better employee. European countries acknowledge this to some extent, with shorter work weeks and much greater “entitlement” to vacation and family time (not to mention far more generous family leave policies). But many American companies stubbornly refuse to create policies that support this balance.

I’ve done what many of my contemporaries have done; find work situations that agree with my own personal findings. I’m much better if I get to care for my creative, community and family obligations as the priorities; and now that I’ve found an ideal assortment of freelance and creative work, I’ve even discovered that my financial life is better for it. I’m paying off debt, growing savings, and only spending money where I want to spend it. I think that the attitudes of my own children and the “millennials” who will one day run our corporate future agree with this belief.

Do you do better work in a traditional commuting office environment, or with more flexible arrangements? How have you created a work life that does (or does not) work for your skills and personality type?

9 Responses to “Working remotely: It’s good, right?”

  1. Anonymous

    Working in an organization where we’ve started locating people out in remote offices, I’ve noted some rather large inefficiencies because those staff aren’t hearing the tips/insights/brainstorming normally exchanged over the office wall. Maybe it’s more efficient for them, but they’re leaning on the work that’s done in headquarters and that leaning/dependency decreases the efficiency of those who are in the office – we have the brain-storming conversation once when it naturally arises during in-person interactions, and then have to repeat it all to the remote staff.

    On the other hand, sometimes I do really need to concentrate on one thing for an extended period of time – in those cases it’s much better to telework and be at home without the distractions.

    In many cases, I think blending and flexibility is best – encourage/allow some teleworking, but also have core days where everyone has to be in the office.

  2. Anonymous

    I wrote a nationally bestselling novel with a baby on my lap! I’m a big believer in working from home, obviously. Though it’s AMAZING how clean my house gets when I’m on deadline…..

  3. Anonymous

    People can be productive or unproductive in an office. They can, likewise, be productive or unproductive at home.

    Who you are shows in what you do. Smart managers know that and can spot the difference.

    But are there enough smart managers out there?

  4. Anonymous

    I must agree with “g”. For a responsible person, working from home can be productive and gratifying for both the employee and the company. But, not everyone is a responsible person. Those people who take advantage of working remotely can ruin the opportunity for many others.

  5. Anonymous

    you’re missing the point.

    working from home is good for responsible people.

    yahoo workers aren’t being responsible and taking advantage of the old policy. they stay at home without doing work.

  6. Anonymous

    This was SPOT ON! I have worked from home for a large defense contractor for 7 years. I have never been more productive. I don’t have children, and my home is quiet and conducive to work. The only distractions I have are dogs I have to let in and out — far LESS distracting than the many “social butterflies” you find in the office environment, who can’t remain in their own workspace for longer than 15 minutes at a time.

    The world is better off every time a company makes the decision to allow telecommuting, as well. Less pollution, less traffic, less oil consumption, happier employees. It’s a no brainer. As you say, not EVERYONE is cut out for it, but that’s where managers should be expected to be managers and withdraw the privilege if it’s not the right fit or being abused.

    Excellent article!

  7. Anonymous

    Thank you for this post! I’m required to sit in a cubeless office with 37 other people. I can get more work done in two hours on a sick day than I can in ten hours at the office (where I can’t hear myself think because I have to hear every thought that pops into anyone’s head).
    My job really requires me to be in the building about eight hours a week, the rest could be done from anywhere. But instead I’m forced to commute two hours a day to sit in an office where I can’t get anything done, just for the sake of appearances.

  8. Anonymous

    Mr. 1500 works from home, and has since our first daughter was 3 weeks old. He has flourished, since he is now no longer “bothered” by those people at the office who walk around and talk to people rather than work.

    He had a co-worker who also telecommuted full time. This particular guy would play around all week, then work like mad all weekend, trying to make up for it. He lost that job, as well he should have.

    I was surprised at Marissa Mayer’s announcement requiring all remote employees to show up at the office full time. Perhaps a few brainstorming sessions every year would have the same impact. I think they will lose many good employees, and this will drive down morale among those that stay. I will not be surprised if this is reversed with the next Yahoo CEO.

  9. Anonymous

    Bully for you Sarah! I’ve noted that remote workers are almost always more efficient, more dedicated, more effective workers than their office-bound brethren. While a small percentage might take advantage and be consistently lazy, most people who value their good fortune will work harder and better at home. The advantages are numerous – more time to work as they gain 5-12 hours commute time that can be invested in working, lower office costs for employers, less crowding on the roads, lower stress, stronger families, lower costs, happier employees.

    With conferencing tools like Lync, Webex, and GoToMeeting, workers can still be engaged w/co-workers. As you noted, they are far more focused on their work and as a result, more efficient. While the average worker might take some time for personal chores and errands, they end up being more effective and actually investing more time in their work and putting out a higher quality of work.

    I know of several companies and public agencies who saved money by eliminating the rental of large office buildings, investing a much smaller amount in their employee’s home offices and as a result, their output, efficiency and morale all improved dramatically. Companies that do not see this are hampered by blinders and self defeating egos where insecure bosses think they have to watch their employees to “make sure they do their jobs”. What a crock! How insecure can you be?

    While not for every industry or every worker, most people would be happier with stronger home life, less stress and the whole improved quality of life thing. You would think any company owner worth their salt would see the value in this win-win scenario. Many industries would see a huge increase in efficiency, morale and productivity if they moved a large part of their workforce to telecommuting. Costs would go down, employees would receive what is effectively a pay raise (no more commuting) while actually lowering costs for the employer!

    It’s a win-win that is held back by insecure people afraid of change and bosses who fear losing power. A secure worker (boss or office worker) would gladly accept the chance to be happier, more efficient, family oriented and save money. An employer who values efficiency, lower costs, higher productivity, higher morale, etc. would embrace such a win-win scenario.

    This one seems to be a no-brainer, but how often has such “no-brainer” logic ever moved employers, owners, and bosses to do the right thing? They’d rather continue the ineffective, self-defeating paths they are familiar with.

Leave a Reply