Just how necessary is the traditional office?
It's a question that will determine the future of work, and one that the world's biggest corporations are answering in very different ways. With the proliferation of mobile computers and messaging software, fewer and fewer employees need to be physically present in their company's offices. In response, a slew of major corporations are allowing their staff to work remotely, to reduce real estate and travel costs, and improve work-life balance.
But some other firms have taken a different approach, one that at first blush resembles the traditional nine-to-five culture of the past, but is instead aimed at promoting spontaneous collaboration and teamwork.
Last week, Yahoo Inc. announced it is banning its employees from working remotely. In a memo leaked to the news media, Yahoo's top human resources executive, Jackie Reses, said Yahoo employees with work-from-home arrangements will be asked to work from a company office starting in June.
"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings," the memo obtained by All Things Digital, read. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."
(Yahoo initially declined to comment for this story, and later issued a statement that read: "We don't discuss internal matters. This isn't a broad industry view on working from home – this is about what is right for Yahoo, right now." )
The move to ban telecommuting comes as chief executive officer Marissa Mayer attempts to turn the company's fortunes around. For years, the company that helped invent Internet search has struggled to regain market share and ad revenue from competitors such as Google Inc., and has had similar difficulties organizing and monetizing its various media holdings. Like executives at Google, Ms. Mayer has tried to increase employee engagement through various perks such as company smartphones. Now, the CEO appears to have taken that strategy one step further.
The policy shift comes at a time when many other large companies are trying to convince more employees to work from home.
In 2010, the organizers of the Vancouver Olympics asked Telus Corp. to minimize the number of workers entering the downtown core, as part of a plan to ease traffic. The company agreed, and employee feedback was so positive that the company eventually made many of the Olympics-related changes permanent.
"For Telus, it resulted in significant cost savings, and allowed us to reduce our real estate footprint," says company spokesman Shawn Hall, who himself works from home several days a week. "It's also a great recruitment tool. By offering people the opportunity to work from where and when works for them, that's an important benefit."
Telus is now working toward a goal of having 70 per cent of its work force telecommuting by 2015.
Despite growing use of collaboration software such as instant messaging and video-conferencing tools, most people still work in a traditional office. In 2008, a Statistics Canada survey showed only 11.2 per cent of employees did some of their work at home – by 2011, the statistic remained unchanged. In addition to the concerns outlined in the Yahoo memo, some employers also worry about accurately gauging the productivity of workers who aren't physically in the office. Perception is also a concern for many of the employees themselves.
Bruce Dow, an associate partner of strategy and transformation in global business services for IBM, said that even though his company is known for progressive attitudes about telework, he still found himself resisting the shift when he gave up his office in downtown Toronto eight years ago.
"I had a window office on the 48th floor with a great view and, like many, I resisted strongly when the opportunity was first presented to me with all the objections I still hear from others today, issues of entitlement and the prestige of having their own closed offices."
Today, Mr. Dow counts himself among the 40 per cent of IBM's workplace formally classified as mobile, basing himself at a home office and logging into a desk at the downtown office when he needs it with his laptop and a portable phone number. He shares his work address with 500 people at IBM's Toronto-based office, even as the location seats only 150 at a series of interchangeable desks. For IBM, the real estate savings have been significant.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Yahoo decision so far is its perceived lack of flexibility. Most experts agree that telework does not need to be an all-or-nothing proposition.
"It comes down to everything in moderation," said Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who studies work, stress and health.
"Rather than have somebody always work from home, have some arrangement where there's an effort to understand and negate any of the downsides. So if you believe interaction and decision-making happens best when people are together, make sure there opportunities to make that happen."
Suzanne Bowness is a freelance writer.
Join us for an online chat on this topic Thursday, Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. ET
Is there a future for teleworking after Yahoo made the decision late last week to demand that its remote workers come back to the mother ship? University of Toronto sociology professor Scott Schieman will be online with Globe Careers on Thursday, Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss what Yahoo's decision means to teleworking, and to talk about the future of being a remote worker.
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