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Why is telecommuting still controversial?

Employees wait to board a Yahoo bus at Van Ness and Pacific avenues in San Francisco, getting a ride to their jobs at the tech company's Sunnyvale headquarters. Paul Chinn/Chronicle photo

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From page A8 | March 03, 2013 |

By Caleb Garling

Working remotely has long been a sort of utopian vision of employment. And today, with computers and smartphones able to connect us, we can easily escape arduous commutes and cramped offices and get jobs done from the comfort of the couch or even the beach.

Yet the idea has not caught fire as many had thought it would since digital communication began to pervade life a decade and a half ago. While statistics show that working from home is on the rise, it doesn’t seem to match the pace of technological evolution. U.S. employees who worked remotely at least one day each week increased to 9.5 percent in 2010, from 7 percent in 1997, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau.

This week, the ranks of remote workers got a little smaller, when Sunnyvale tech giant Yahoo told its employees their telecommuting days are over, according to a leaked memo.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” said the memo, whose contents were confirmed to Bloomberg by an unnamed Yahoo employee. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

That any company in 2013, let alone one whose business is connecting people through the Internet, would make such a decree set off a debate on the wisdom and usefulness of such seemingly old-school thinking. But at bottom, the real question seems to be: Considering the technological tools available to today’s workers — instant messaging, email, Skype, Facetime, Hangouts — why is working from home is still considered such an “alternative” solution?

Simple conversation

Joseph M. Pastore, a professor at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York, says it’s nearly impossible to supplant the basic unit of communication in an office setting: the efficacy of a simple conversation. Working remotely “is not always going to work as effectively as you think,” he says. “Most of life’s experiences are human experiences. There’s so much about what we do — to the extent that it’s conversational and interactive.”

It’s what some term the “watercooler” phenomenon: The truly critical details of a job are the in-between moments where casual conversation spurs projects and initiatives that end up delivering real value for the business.

Another reason the workplace remains the work space of choice is simple personal preference. Some people just work better around others.

In the case of Yahoo, many see the long-struggling Internet giant as bloated and needing to tighten its belt in order to compete with a new generation of tech heavyweights. By telling workers to show up or ship out, as the memo indicated, CEO Marissa Mayer, who took over in June, may be able to clear some dead weight.

Freedom to excel

Still, self-interested observers jumped on Yahoo’s case.

Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, for one, said Mayer’s move perplexed him. “Give people the freedom of where to work & they will excel,” he tweeted.

Mayer’s former employer, Google, and Facebook, likely smelling blood in Silicon Valley’s hiring waters, were quick to reiterate their own friendly work-from-home policies.

From a policy point of view, statistics seem to be on their side. The 2012 National Study of Employers, a report backed by family and workers’ rights advocacy groups, notes that some 63 percent of companies allow — though not necessarily encourage — at least some employees to work a portion of their time remotely. That’s up from 34 percent in 2005.

But talk with just about anyone at Google, Facebook or other workplaces across Silicon Valley, and they’ll admit that while an occasional day at home is fine, being in the office is usually more productive.

Security, efficiency

In our high-tech world, several macro-level factors come into play. IT managers handling sensitive data — health care, banking, law, government — may not want it transferred over public Wi-Fi networks. Some computing systems are accessible only from within a company’s internal network.

The efficacy of working remotely is also job-dependent. Customer service agents spend almost all of their time on the phone and in front of a computer, rarely needing face-to-face interaction with other agents, making them ideal candidates for remote work.

Freelance designers or coders can take the specifications and get most of their work done without setting foot in an office. Even radiologists, for instance, can review films from the comfort of a home computer, without having to set foot in the hospital.

But until retail stores are fundamentally redesigned, the sales staff needs to be on the floor.

A Facebook representative says the company keeps an informal policy around working from home — one not reviewed by its human resources department — leaving it up to the individual manager and employee to decide the matter.

Pace’s Pastore notes that all that really should matter for a business is whether managers can take an analytic approach to the difference in an employee’s impact and output.

“When you’re deciding if it’s good or bad, you just have to look at the results,” he says.

Increasing gas prices and crowded highways may make commuting more painful, but in the end, most managers will default to the bottom line, he says. “The mere fact you’re saving a little money and time (by employees staying home) won’t supplant the fact you’re not getting the job done.”

Lifestyle changes

The 2012 National Study of Employers presents 17 options for “working flexibly,” which include ideas like compressed workweeks and schedules for working other than 9-to-5, for better catering to what employees need to fit work into their lives.

Much of it focuses on the increasing diversity of family architecture. Single parents or couples juggling complicated schedules need flexibility to raise children and earn a living. And often the precise hours a project or document gets done don’t matter.

Lisa Horn, co-leader at the Society of Human Resource Management, one of the study’s backers, says that a lot of the resistance her group sees to more flexible working conditions is attributable to an inability to create and manage new paradigms. Having some employees’ workdays out of phase with others’ takes careful planning — and sometimes requires a shift in corporate mind-set.

“You have to have a culture that supports it,” she says. But a corporate culture can also support the reverse, as many Silicon Valley companies have famously shown.

Google, for instance, showers employees with free meals, massages, gyms, child care and rainbow-colored bicycles to get around its sprawling Mountain View campus. Many other tech startups offer similar, albeit less lavish, measures.

While they are “perks” in the HR handbook, it’s also Google’s way of keeping people in the office by using the carrot rather than the stick.

The bikes may be cute, but they also get Googlers to their meetings on time.

— Reach Caleb Garling at [email protected]

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