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The pros and cons of working from home

Last updated on: March 25, 2013 16:01 IST

The pros and cons of working from home

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Work cultures are evolving, with plenty of room for innovative models to emerge - fuelled by technological advances, cost consciousness and work-life balance considerations, says Jyorden T Misra, Founding member & MD, Spearhead Intersearch.

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Ann Mayer's decision to end telecommuting has evoked strong reactions and has divided opinion.

Will this mark the beginning of an industry trend with more organisations urging employees to return to office? Or is it time to assess the traditional work-from-home structure and design new ways to ensure discipline and improve productivity?

While there is no substitute to a personal interaction to derive the best output, it's also a fact that today the pace of activities and demands on time don't always permit this beautiful luxury.

Work cultures are evolving, with plenty of room for innovative models to emerge - fuelled by technological advances, cost consciousness and work-life balance considerations.

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Image: Yahoo! CEO Marissa Ann Mayer.

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Look around: Cities are fast turning into megapolises resulting in maniacal traffic with stress levels breaching all records.

To bring some sanity and efficiency into one's working life, it's no surprise that 'work from home' has gained currency.

Apart from the obvious advantages, it also gives an opportunity to employees who are interested in investing in skill enhancement.

With technological advancements, neither is it necessary to be physically present for all internal meetings, presentations or team interactions.

Today, one is connected real time through video calls even on the move thanks to portable and hand-held devices.

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Accessing proprietary internal data/information has never been easier with 'anywhere-anytime' options readily available. If the benefits are many, why did that one company, which is seen as a pioneer and brand ambassador of the idea roll back this privilege?

The now famous memo sent to Yahoo! employees by its CEO says: "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home...We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with being physically together".

This trend is not new - we have seen something like this happening in organisations like IBM, Twitter, Google - all of them have been asking their employees to work from their offices, as they believe it creates a more collaborative environment.

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The CFO of Google, Patrick Pichette, has even said he believes that working from home could isolate employees from other staff. At an event last month, he reportedly said: "The surprising question we get is: How many people telecommute at Google? And our answer is: As few as possible."

On the other hand, many individuals rank 'working from home' a higher perk than being given, say, a company car.

When Yahoo! formally announced its decision to roll back work-from-home, Richard Branson, founder and chairman of Virgin Group, said, "This seems a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever."
The truth is that Yahoo! has seen three years of declining revenue and Marissa Ann Mayer, president and CEO of the company, has the responsibility of the stakeholders and the company on her shoulders.

For her, the best way to promote innovation in the company is by face-to-face interaction.

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The reason why many organisations are disillusioned with this concept lies in the complexities of human nature.

Like many privileges, work-from-home is vulnerable to misuse. For it to succeed, transparent guidelines should be laid out by the company.

There should be a framework of checks and balances that protects the organisation's interests.

In the absence of a firm, well designed architecture that helps measure the overall compliance of expectations (delivery) and value (productivity), it becomes very difficult for the organisation and the employee to maintain a long-distance relationship. 

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A key area of concern is that employees often feel demotivated - so there has to be incentives so that she feels supported even while working from a remote location. Here are some areas where organisations need to focus on:

Setting milestones and targets with clearly defined timelines.

Ensuring shorter review cycles to keep feedback and course correction mechanisms operational.

Keep team-interaction alive through telecons, video conferences and other media.

If there is clarity in the role of the individual and the expectations of an organisation, then I don't see why work-from-home can't work effectively.

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One has to look at the profile of an employee before allowing him/her an arrangement like this., says Srimathi Shivashankar, AVP & head – Diversity & Sustainability, HCL Technologies.

I believe Marissa Mayer is right in taking stock of the situation at Yahoo!. Only a policy audit can assess the impact of a stringent decision like this. 'Company' as an enabler and 'home' as an enabler are two sides of the same coin.

Let us first look at the role of a company and I would address this issue from the point of view of IT companies. Ideally, a progressive idea like 'work from home' should be a part of the HR policy of companies. HCL gives this option to both male and female employees.

One has to look at the profile of an employee before allowing him/her an arrangement like this.

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For instance, it may not be right to offer work from home to an employee who provides customer support.

Or, to someone who looks after data security. Other examples include job profiles with responsibilities related to onsite production. Not to forget, IT profiles are all about team work and interdependencies. 

The other side of the coin has home as an enabler in productivity.

While metros and small towns have been witnessing realty boom for many years now, providing more space to people of various income groups, the average Indian household is too noisy for any employee to remain productive.

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Many cultural and social factors come into play. Over the years, my interactions with working women have been enlightening and surprising.

Recently, I spoke to a mother of two who explained how her housemaid decided to take her work casually. She assumed that since the lady was now at home all the time she was free to look into domestic chores.

At times, the extended family takes you for granted just because they see you around all the time.

Innovation happens when conflict of ideas are constructively leveraged in the work place. While I support that people can share ideas from anywhere, some amount of brainstorming needs face-to-face meetings. This is especially true in an IT company which has to serve customers across the globe and face new problems to solve every day.

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Moreover, developmental needs such as cross-functional interactions, mentoring, and leadership workshops can only be fulfilled by physically attending the office.

Having said that, sometimes people need time alone to focus their creative energies for a specific project. This can, therefore, have a positive impact on people's careers.

However, work-from-home has its own limitations, ranging from lack of self-discipline, distractions created by children/spouse and other family members, poor communication and understanding among team members.

In India, there's no concept of 'home office'. Even today, data connectivity and security is a challenge in our country.

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All these factors play a huge role in bringing down employee productivity. It's totally up to the employees how effectively they manage their time to bring in a work-life balance.

In the West, organisations have clear policies on the required home infrastructure for employees opting for work from home.

I do not see any reason why Yahoo!'s decision should make other companies who allow work from home rethink their HR policies. It will be regressive on part of any company to make a hasty decision on an issue as sensitive as this. At the same time, it won't come as a surprise if more people will prefer coming to the office over work from home.

HR policies reflect the culture of a company and today we see employers opting for softer policies to promote inclusion of the right talent. Alternate policies are the need of the hour.




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