WHEN Yahoo! chief executive Marissa Mayer announced the company's recent ban on staff working from home in regular hours, she was attacked by business leaders, human resources experts, academics, environmentalists and feminists.
Yet the heated argument that followed has highlighted a management issue well worth scrutinising: What working conditions deliver the most productivity? Is there only so far the seemingly inexorable trend towards "flexibility" can go before staff diffusion begins to damage a company's internal coherence? Is the now widespread assumption that working from home is the way of the future radically overstated?
Or will rapid technological change really make the concept of office-based work seem risible? Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson has predicted that within 30 years people will "look back and wonder why offices existed". Many staff who worked from home, he wrote, were "extremely diligent, get their job done and get to spend more time with their families. They waste less time commuting and get a better work-life balance. To force everybody to work in offices is old-school thinking."
Ironically, given the vital role technological developments are playing in enabling more people to work remotely, both Google and Facebook insist their staff work in offices and the internet giants provide creches, lap pools and free meals as incentives.
"Working from the office is really important," Google chief financial officer Patrick Pichette told technology entrepreneurs during a recent visit to Sydney, despite the fact that his own company encourages other businesses to use Google apps so their staff can work at any time and from anywhere.
"The surprising question we get is: How many people telecommute at Google? Our answer is: As few as possible."
Personal interaction, Pichette said, is the only way to create those "magical moments we at Google think are immensely important in the development of your company, your personal development and [the] building of much stronger communities".
The US business and technology writer James Surowiecki has argued that a dispersed staff can threaten a company's coherent identity. "Most studies of telecommuting focus on how working from home affects employees," he wrote.
"Less often discussed is how [it] affects employers. Telecommuting makes it harder for people to have the informal interactions crucial to the way knowledge moves through an organisation. The role that hallway chat plays in driving new ideas has become a cliche of business writing, but that doesn't make it less true."
Nicholas Barnett is the chief executive of Insync Surveys, which conducts workplace culture and performance studies for major Australian companies, and he finds it "bizarre in this day and age" that anyone still argues traditional, face-to-face interactions are essential for fostering innovation and creativity.
"Of course, people need to get together from time to time in any company, but the single biggest difference in whether a company performs well or poorly is inspiring, visionary leadership," he says. "And in today's world of rapid technological change, it is not visionary to try to turn the clock back to old command-and-control management methods. You must empower employees to decide what works best for them as individuals, so they can be as productive and engaged as possible.
"Any business must have very clear, well-communicated strategies and goals and be focused on outcomes and results rather than inputs, and it must authentically and genuinely care about its employees. One key way successful organisations show they care is by permitting staff to work as flexibly as possible, including demonstrating trust by allowing people to work from home. Low-performance organisations tend to overlook the importance of their people and are more likely to treat them as a mere number or unit of labour."
Peter Wilson, chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute, agrees and describes Insync's conclusions as "highly consistent" with other studies of employee engagement and performance.
The head of Westpac's diversity and flexibility unit, Jane Counsel, says employers must implement increasingly flexible work practices. "Permitting staff to work from home wherever possible promotes higher engagement, greater loyalty and productivity," she says. "In banking's 24/7 environment, we have to support our workforce in being agile enough to meet very dynamic customer requirements. Working in different time zones and managing rural and remote teams, we have to be flexible in the environment we create in our offices, but also in allowing people to choose the location they work from."
About 62 per cent of Westpac employees work flexibly. That includes part-time hours, job-sharing, extended parental leave and teleworking - a percentage the bank expects to rise in coming years. A "banker at home" pilot project in Tasmania in 2010 proved so successful in boosting productivity and staff retention rates that it has been expanded to sales and customer support staff nationwide.
Internal surveys by Westpac have found that enabling employees to work flexibly, including from home, fosters wellbeing and engagement. "Apart from family and childcare issues, there's also the ageing workforce demographic trend to consider," Counsel says.
"As the workplace ages, there will be more mature age workers wanting to work flexibly. Increasingly, younger employees also expect flexibility as the norm.
"There's no doubt face-to-face interaction is vital at times, but providing choice as to where and how people work is equally important in driving engagement, loyalty and productivity."
Top-tier law firm Clayton Utz supports flexible working conditions, including teleworking options, for its 1700-strong workforce. Property lawyer Zoe Fleming, who works from home four days a week and in Clayton Utz's Canberra office on the fifth, says she had assumed she would need to resign after deciding to move to the NSW south coast with her husband in 2009. However, she was delighted to be offered the option of home-based work.
Still, sweeping predictions that technology will make office-based work and the daily commute obsolete seem unlikely to eventuate. With the proportion of Australian workers who telecommute each day remaining at just 3 per cent between the 2006 and 2011 censuses, offices seem likely to survive for many decades yet.
(via The Australian)