Shirking from home?

Big chunks of many jobs are work-from-home friendly, and while the trend's getting a cold shoulder from Yahoo and Google it may be Virgin's new red. So how far can it be taken?

Despite work-life balance being all the rage, the Business Council of Australia, BHP Billiton and other business groups this month slammed the federal government’s proposals for flexible employee working arrangements under the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2013.

How far can work flexibility go? How far should it go?

What about taking a plane trip with the cabin staff serving you drinks remotely from their front porches and the cockpit controlled from the captain’s lounge room?

Fantasy? Well, according to British billionaire Richard Branson, working from home may one day become Virgin’s new red. “We like to give people the freedom to work where they want,” he said recently on his blog.

With that approach, ‘auto-pilot’ could take on a whole new meaning, and give a rather creepy tone to Virgin Atlantic’s slogan, ‘Your Airline's Either Got It, Or It Hasn't’.

Do you WFH? I do, for big licks of my time, as do swathes of my board-member buddies and also my fellow writers. WFH is clearly flexible and convenient. But, apart from pilots, is it a good idea for business generally?

Let’s start with asking why many of us already do it. For some, it’s because they can; for others, such as artists, it’s because they can’t afford much else.

The key to its growth, of course, is technology. Today, it’s a snap to zip through corporate reports, or both research and write a gripping chapter without poking a single toe outside our front doors.

It saves on travel time and pollution, too. And, ah, the delicious secret freedom to sit around in your shorts and light up a Havana to sharpen your non-executive director’s mind, or to pour the golden glass of whisky to whet the drained author’s quill.

If WFH is so good for many of us, surely all the work-life-balance-loving experts are spot-on claiming that the same privilege spread widely across company employees will be a sure-fire way to boost their productivity and work satisfaction.  

Senator Stephen Conroy, increasingly the minister for everything, thinks so. In November, he plans to host National Telework Week to showcase the benefits of WFH, though I wonder if he will lead the way by encouraging attendees to stay sitting in their homes, clicking in remotely to hear his wisdom.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard apparently thinks so, too. When recently endorsing a Deloitte forecast – that WFH will deliver an extra $3.2 billion a year to the nation’s GDP by 2020 – she touted how the national broadband network will treble home-working public servants from four per cent to 12 per cent by the same year.

Hmm. If GDP will climb by $3.2 billion because an extra 8 per cent of Canberra’s mandarins are staying at home, why stop there?

Think of our nation’s massive productivity gains if we paid 100 per cent of public servants to stay at home?

Yet, despite all that, WFH is not universally praised.

Indeed, two mammoth global companies have panned it as counterproductive. Surprisingly, these strident critics are not fusty, old-economy smoke-stack firms or production-line manufacturers. They’re not BHP Billiton nor, obviously, Virgin, but two of the digital age’s icons, Google and Yahoo.

Take Marissa Myer, the chief executive at Yahoo. She has not merely criticised WFH, she’s banned it. All of it.

Myer doesn’t want Yahoos loitering in their hallway at home, she wants them bumping into colleagues in the hallways at work.

In a “confidential” staff memo that stayed secret for as long as most companies take to change chief executives these days, Yahoo’s head of human resources wrote: “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.”

It’s not just Yahoo that’s exhibiting troglodytic tendencies, either. Patrick Pichette, the global chief financial officer of search giant Google, expressed similar pre-historic sentiments when visiting Australia recently.

“Working from the office is really important,” he sniffed. “There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer ‘What do you think of this?’ These are [the] magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of your company, of your own personal development and [of] building much stronger communities.”

How many people telecommute at Google? “As few as possible,” says Pichette with ice in his voice.

It seems that the dumb old-school way of working in the office, hunched over your computer, crammed into meeting rooms, bumping into people at the water cooler, and “noodling on ideas” is suddenly the smart new-school way.

This Yahoo and Google assault on the new status quo unleashed a tempest of criticism in both social and traditional media, including from Branson.

Another example was Slate’s technology writer, Farhad Manjoo, who panned this new approach as “myopic, unfriendly, and so boneheaded that I worry it’s the product of spending too much time at the office.” TouchĂ©.

It’s true that many studies show employee productivity improving through WFH. One released in February, “Does working from home work?” by Stanford and Beijing researchers showed that WFH boosted the monitored workers’ performance by 13 per cent over a nine-month period.

But research papers like this are often quoted loosely – such as in the Slate article – as if their pro-WFH conclusions apply across the board, when they may not.

These academic researchers raised a red-flag about WFH, limiting their encouraging findings to roles with characteristics akin to the call-centre employees they studied, people who require “neither teamwork nor in-person face time”.

“Quantity and quality of performance can be easily quantified and evaluated. The link between effort and performance is direct,” they said. Jobs they suggested were in sales, IT support and secretarial assistance, but they expressly pointed out their findings were “far from universal”.

Google and Yahoo undoubtedly have loads of people in such service roles, as does Virgin. But what’s driving Google and Yahoo on WFH is, fundamentally, that creativity and teamwork need at least two to tango or rather to brainstorm. Teamwork needs teams. Cockpits need pilots.

That said, even for teams and creative roles, flexibility can be a plus. But even if part of the job needs to be performed in the office, it doesn’t mean other parts can’t be carved out for WFH.

In multi-office organisations, what does it matter if you’re making that crucial phone or video call to colleagues in another city while sitting in your office and dressed in Armani or Dior versus in your shorts and a T-shirt at home?

Big chunks of many jobs are WFH-friendly, but I suspect none of us would fly a pilot-free airline and few would countenance work colleagues who chose to attend every single meeting by phone, even if they were dressed in tuxedoes.

And coming back to that tasty topic of work-life balance. The home was once heralded as a refuge from work. A place for down time. For quality time with the kids, as we used to say. But increasingly, work is invading family life. For many of us, there is less and less down time. If that’s truly by our own individual choice, fine. We make our own beds, so to speak, even at home. But if an employer expects it of us, or demands it of us?

Maybe, just maybe, we’re all better off keeping work at work.

Sorry, I’ve got to go. There’s a board paper to read in the garden, and a chapter to write on the deck.

John M. Green is a leading company director, commentator and novelist. His latest novel, The Trusted, is an eco-cyber-thriller out in paperback and ebook. Click here for a sneak peek.