Steve Kelman explores telework's tradeoffs on innovation and efficiency.
On Feb. 26, the New York Times reported in a front-page story that the new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had issued a memo rescinding the company’s policy on telework (which the article quaintly calls “telecommuting”) and ordering workers back to the office. Given the expansion of telework in the federal government, and the suggestion that this is a wave of the future that only trogdolyte managers resist, the story is an interesting one.
What is going on?
The basic story behind Yahoo’s decision is that the company believes that having workers interact with each other face to face promotes both collaboration and innovation, two features Yahoo wants to see in its workplace as the company tries to turn itself around. (The article notes that the new Yahoo policy is simply a more extreme version of a Google company policy that discourages telework.)
The argument makes sense. We can communicate better with others when we see facial expressions, body language, and when we can have the banter that comes naturally to face-to-face communication. We build social ties and learn a lot at the water cooler. And innovation is often born when ideas and thoughts confront each other in real time, with real-time reactions, and that is also done best face to face.
But telework has advantages too from an organizational perspective. Research shows, as the article notes, that telework is often worse for innovation, but better for productivity at fixed jobs. Organizations get to downsize their real estate portfolios (a hot theme in government that will become hotter with tight budget times), and productive work is not lost to commuting time.
Telework is hard when there are no metrics to judge an employee’s work. These are the situations – probably often unnecessarily used as a crutch in government organizations – where a supervisor will want to keep an eye on employees to make sure they’re not loafing. The flip side is that the better the metrics the less need for the supervisor’s watchful eye on the employee’s body – the supervisor can look at the employee’s work product or output.
From an employee satisfaction perspective, having a telework option is nice, even if a given employee chooses never or seldom to use it. (To be frank, many professors frequently do what we call “working from home,” aka telework, although I personally like to go into the office when I’m in Boston.)
The bottom line, in my view, is that there is not a telework one-size-fits-all. If Yahoo really wants collaboration and innovation, maybe it should prohibit telework, at least for the employees it wants to be collaborative and innovative. But other organizations, or jobs within organizations, will likely benefit from telework.
Readers, what do you think? What have been your organizational experiences with telework?
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