The National Learning Institute

Latest Articles

Can you really work from anywhere?

February 19, 2013 Articles, Performance Management 2 Comments
Working from home

Google’s Chief Financial Officer ruffled a few feathers recently when he said that he believed working from home is not the best way to generate ideas and innovation. But is he right?

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, Google’s Chief Financial Officer, Patrick Pichette has suggested that working from home (WFH) is not the best way to generate ideas and innovation.

Pichette was visiting Google’s Australian office and a local start up business community, when he made some unexpected comments on the topic of WFH.

“The surprising question we get is: ‘How many people telecommute at Google?” Pichette said. “And our answer is: ‘As few as possible’.”

“It’s somewhat counterintuitive. People think, ‘Well, because you’re at Google you can work from anywhere.’ Yes, you can work from anywhere, but many just commute to offices . . . Working from the office is really important.”

Prichette makes an important point that is often overlooked in the debate on how productive WFH (or telecommuting) can be – the need (in certain jobs, and I would add cultures, organisation cultures and with certain personality types) for social interaction.

Pichette said he believed that working from home could “isolate employees from other staff.”

“There is something magical about sharing meals.  There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer ‘What do you think of this?’ These are magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of your company, of your own personal development and building much stronger communities.”

Yet seemingly contrary to Prichette’s views, the percentage of people who WFH is growing – for example, in the US it’s estimated to be around 10% of the workforce.

So, is WFH a good thing – for the employer or employee (or both)?  How do organisations decide whether to provide WFH arrangements for their people?  And if you’re an employee who has the opportunity to participate in WFH, is it right for you?

There’s been a raft of research on this topic from as far back as the mid 70s. The general result of such studies is that WFH can be very productive for both the employer and the employee.  But there are caveats.

A recent study (Bloom et al Jan 2013) of a Chinese company running a call centre showed that when two groups of employees were compared over a nine month period (one traditional office bound and the other WFH) the WFH group were far more productive. In fact, 13% more productive.

However the authors point out that, “The job of a call center employee is particularly suitable for telecommuting. It requires neither teamwork nor in-person face time. Quantity and quality of performance can be easily quantified and evaluated. The link between effort and performance is direct. These conditions apply to a range of service jobs such as sales, IT support, and secretarial assistance.”

“Team Leaders/Managers could generate a report from the database of the performance of the team members daily and easily detect problems in individual employees’ performance,” they added.

In the Chinese example, the results of the experiment were so successful (for the company), they decided to offer all their call centre employees the option of WFH or working in the office on a permanent basis (they’d all originally also been given the opportunity to volunteer for the WFH experiment).

Yet surprisingly, over half of all the employees changed their minds, indicating the extent of employee learning about their own suitability for working from home. In particular, two thirds of the control group decided to stay in the office, citing concerns over the loneliness of home working and lower rates of promotion.

In reverse, half of the WFH group changed their minds and returned to the office – typically those who had performed relatively badly at home.

My own observations about the growth in WFH arrangements is that over recent years the emphasis has been on providing flexible working conditions to encourage a more motivated and stable workforce.

In search of this, have the actual job factors been overlooked?

It’s an equally important consideration.  For instance, looking at professionals who WFH, an earlier 2007 study found that:

-      Jobs that are completed in their entirety by the employee are far more motivating

-      Higher feedback from the job itself is associated with more positive outcomes

-      Higher feedback from the manager is associated with more positive outcomes

-      Lower need to deal with others in the job is associated with more positive outcomes

If we now consider some of this evidence, perhaps there’s more behind Mr. Prichette’s remarks than even he realises. These are important considerations for senior managers and HR managers when making decisions about offering WFH options.  And for employees, it would be useful to look at the type of work on offer and one’s own personality and work preferences before making a decision to WFH no matter how appealing it may seem.

©2013 Bob Selden, The National Learning Institute


About the Author -

Bob Selden is the author of the best-selling “What To Do When You Become The Boss” – a self-help book for new managers – see details at http://www.whenyoubecometheboss.com/. He’s also coached at one of the world’s premier business schools, the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and regularly advises managers around the globe on their current challenges. Please add your comments to this article or contact Bob via http://www.nationallearning.com.au/contact if you would like some free advice on your current management challenge.

2 comments

  1. You absolutely can’t work from “anywhere.” But depending on the nature of your work, your manager, the environment in the office and the alternate location you might work, it could certainly be better.

    A lot of articles seem to focus on “innovation” that somehow happens through collaboration in physical proximity of one another. I’m not going to argue that this doesn’t happen. But I would love to see references to back up the claim that it happens more than in other situations. All we know is that once upon a time, just about everyone went to an office to do work, and there’s still a ton of work happening there. We find that innovation is sometimes coming from these physical gathering places. We also find that it’s coming from people talking on Skype, reading books or walking on the beach. How is that possible? Because insights come from combining information and ideas. That requires gathering information, hearing and forming ideas and eventually, having some new idea form from this.

    If we look at the research on motivation and ideal brain functioning for creativity and knowledge workers, we find that the person should be in a positive state, not fight or flight, not interrupted. They should have autonomy over certain choices on the job, working towards some mastery of their skill (ideally in a flow state) and already have proper motivation from knowing how their responsibilities relate to a greater purpose of the project and company and perhaps even a larger social goal.

    So there’s plenty of conditions and communication that should have already occurred up to this point, but now that important thing is that there’s nothing getting in the way. There shouldn’t be micromanagement continually asking for updates. There shouldn’t be loud noises and interruptions (though sometimes distraction may help). It’s time for them to either focus on tasks and growing skills, or otherwise be in a relaxed but perhaps energized state where the mind can be active and can form those valuable insights.

    Sometimes offices provide the right environment and sometimes a work-space at home does. But that varies greatly. Leaders, listen to your employees. Help them find ideal times and places for doing great work, and then consider supporting them in being at the right place at the right time, instead of painting a broad stroke across every employee and project and dictating that whatever office arrangement you’ve set up is somehow the ideal for collaborative innovation.

  2. Pingback: Joys and Pitfalls When You Work From Home In the 21st Century — Hermann-Bock.com


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>