Loyola University Chicago

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Ban telecommuting?

Arup Varma

There’s a new sheriff in town (or, why change isn’t always good, or necessary)

By: Arup Varma, professor of human resources

Recently, the CEO of Yahoo! stirred up a lot of controversy by banning telecommuting and mandating that all employees show up at work.

As one might expect, almost immediately, there has been strong reaction on both sides of the issue. There are those who strongly support this decision, arguing that face-to-face interactions with colleagues foster a sense of community and help generate ideas—something that cannot happen when people work remotely. While this seems like a valid reason to have people work out of an office (i.e., the same office), this argument suffers from some rather obvious flaws.

First, by definition, a cohesive group comprises a small number of people. So, while the argument of the importance of face-to-face interaction may make sense for small companies, it really does not hold up when we talk about large companies. I mean, how many colleagues do most of us really interact with, and know well enough, to hold spirited debates?

Next, technology has fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other. It is becoming increasingly common for colleagues sitting in adjacent cubicles to e-mail each other (or send an SMS, etc.) instead of actually getting up and walking over to each other’s desks. So, why not just include those who are sitting on a different floor, or at home for that matter, in such communication? Further, what about companies that have more than one office—perhaps in the same city or in other cities? For that matter, what about companies that operate all over the globe? How exactly are companies going to promote informal interactions between employees in different countries in the way it is being argued (at the watercooler, at the coffee machine, and so on)?

One final argument that is being presented against allowing remote work is that many employees take advantage of this policy and are not as productive as those who are sitting in an office. As someone who studies performance management and other HR topics, I find this argument rather weak. If people were productive simply because they were at work, then most companies would be doing fabulously well and economies around the world would be growing at incredible rates. After all, very few companies actually allow remote work and only individuals in certain types of jobs lend themselves to working remotely.

The solution is not to herd everyone into the office; instead, companies need effective performance management systems that help managers set specific goals with deadlines, clearly communicate expectations and standards, and reward good work accordingly. Of course, this means companies would need excellent (or at least good) managers who truly understand what it takes to manage people.

Of course, as some have argued, the requirement that everyone work from a designated office might simply be a way to reduce headcount, since many people who have been working remotely would find it very difficult to change their lifestyles overnight and would leave the company voluntarily.

Whatever be the real reason behind this announcement, what is true is that this is a common occurrence—almost every time a new leader is brought in to turn a company around, he or she tries to shake things up. Sometimes, it is done just to send a message that there is a “new sheriff in town, and things will be different henceforth.” Other times, the change may be needed because a particular product line has run its course or a strategy isn’t serving the company well. But anytime the proposed change involves the company’s employees, it behooves the leader to tread carefully, especially when it is likely to affect thousands of employees. Not only do such changes negatively impact the productivity of those directly affected, the potential spillover effect on the other employees should not be discounted (What will he/she change next? How will it affect what I do?).

This article first appeared in the February 2013 journal of the National HRD, India's premier association for human resource professionals.