March 2, 2013

A turning point for telecommuting?

After Yahoo's decision to end the practice, Maine telecommuters see both sides in a debate about the viability and value of working from home.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Lauren Smith sees her co-workers in Jackson Hole, Wyo., just two or three times a year, but she's constantly in touch with them.

Today's poll: Telecommuting

Do you agree with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to eliminate telecommuting?

Yes

No

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Mike MacDonald, a software engineer, works at home in Cape Elizabeth on Friday. A telecommuter since 2005 for a company based in California, MacDonald acknowledges, “sometimes there’s no substitute for hashing things out together on a whiteboard and solving a problem.”

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Don Mackenzie of Cape Elizabeth says his work from home for a technology company in Massachusetts is more productive than if he were in an office.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Telecommuting from her home office in southern Maine, she stays in sync with the staff at the travel firm AllTrips.com by working on Mountain Standard Time. And she sometimes works at night or on weekends to troubleshoot problems.

"People don't expect me to be at my desk at all hours, but if I'm available to help, I do," Smith said. "Sometimes that means working awkward hours, but it's a trade-off for being able to work long-distance."

Studies appear to confirm it: Telecommuting boosts productivity, reduces absenteeism and increases employee retention. And those who work at home using technology to communicate with co-workers and clients actually work more hours for the same pay.

Those findings don't seem to matter to the multinational Internet company Yahoo Inc., which surprised many with its recent decision to require all employees to report to the office starting June 1.

California-based Yahoo stirred debate because its decision was made by a female CEO, Marissa Mayer, 37, who last year returned to work just two weeks after having her first child. Some critics said the change would be bad for working parents who want more flexible hours and could prompt some Yahoo employees to quit.

"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," wrote Jackie Reses, Yahoo's human resources chief, in the memo issued last week.

"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussion, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," Reses wrote.

Telecommuters in Maine said this week that they see both sides of the argument. They see themselves as more productive working from home and away from distractions, but they agree that a certain amount of face-to-face collaboration is helpful.

"Sometimes there's no substitute for hashing things out together on a whiteboard and solving a problem," said Mike MacDonald of Cape Elizabeth, a software engineer who has been telecommuting since 2005 and gets together with his co-workers four times a year.

His co-workers are spread across five continents, while his boss is in Toronto and his employer is based in California.

"There's something to be said for collaboration. If you're sitting in a room together, you can bounce ideas off each other. But it can also lead to unproductivity -- people getting sidetracked," Smith said. "I found a previous job at an office incredibly distracting."

Don Mackenzie, also of Cape Elizabeth, has been a telecommuter for the past 15 years. He agrees that working in an office can be less productive.

"The thing I like about working from home is that I can work uninterrupted and get through those tasks that require concentration. At an office, people have constant access to you," Mackenzie said.

According to a Stanford University study released last week, productivity increased 22 percent at a Chinese travel agency that gave its 16,000 workers the option to work from home.

In December, a University of Texas study showed that employees in the U.S. who work remotely work five to seven hours more per week than those who work exclusively in the office.

Employers such as Unum, TD Bank and Bank of America have workers who telecommute from Maine.

"The obstacles or barriers to telecommuting seem to be more organizational, stemming from the manager's reluctance to give up direct supervisory control of workers and from their fears of shirking among workers who telecommute," according to a study issued in June, called "The Hard Truth about Telecommuting," by Mary Noonan and Jennifer Glass.

Noonan is an associate professor at the University of Iowa and Glass is a professor at the University of Texas.

Yahoo issued a statement saying its decision may not be right for every company. "This isn't a broad industry view on working from home -- this is what is right for Yahoo, right now," it said.

In fact, Yahoo's decision goes against indications of a trend toward more telecommuting.

The Families and Work Institute's 2012 National Study of Employers showed that 63 percent of employers now allow at least some of their employees to work part of their regularly paid hours at home on an occasional basis, up from 34 percent in 2005.

Child care isn't the only driving force behind telecommuting, the researchers found. Parents are only slightly more likely to telecommute than non-parents, the study showed.

Sixty-seven percent of men occasionally work at home during regular work hours, compared with 59 percent of women.

Telecommuters have varied reasons for wanting to work from home.

Judy Berk, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, works from home a few days a week to "reduce wear and tear on me and wear and tear on the planet and the community."

In addition to reducing fuel consumption and saving money on the commute between her home near Belfast and her office in Augusta, working from home some days lets Berk tackle projects that demand solitude.

"The peace and quiet at home allows me to do more thinking without interruptions. It's good sometimes to be able to hole up and think," said Berk, who has been telecommuting for 22 years. "I'm equally productive in a different way. Some projects are better done at home. And because technology has changed so much, I can do anything -- webinars, conference calls, video conferences, emails."

Whether workers are at home or at the office doesn't matter as much as their levels of dedication, said Smith, who works for the company in Wyoming. For example, an office-based worker might sit in front of his or her computer all day -- reading gossip blogs rather than working.

"The right employees are going to be disciplined whether they work from home or at an office," Smith said. "If you provide a good work atmosphere, they're going to get their job done because they love their job."

Critics of Yahoo's decision complained that Mayer set a double standard as a working mother because she built, with her own money, a nursery next to her office so she could spend more time with her baby. Other working parents don't have that luxury.

"It's all just another slap in the face of hard-working women and men who are struggling to raise decent kids on incomes that have been stagnant for 30 years, while CEOs and financial-sector players make off with the lioness' share of the income pie," said Susan Feiner, a professor of economics and professor of women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine.

Mackenzie, who works at his home in Cape Elizabeth for Lionbridge Technologies in Waltham, Mass., said Yahoo's decision could have a chilling effect on other companies' telecommuting policies.

"Someone was waiting for the first company to make the change. Others may follow them," Mackenzie said. "It's a lot of work to manage a remote work force. You have to make more of an effort and stay on top of your team."

 

Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@pressherald.com

 

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Today's poll: Telecommuting

Do you agree with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to eliminate telecommuting?

Yes

No

View Results