Some Thoughts on Telecommuting

By Paul A. Jones

Marissa Mayer, over at Yahoo!, is making a fair amount of news these days, most recently for reversing the company’s longstanding embrace of telecommuting and insisting that employees work at the company’s offices.  A lot of people were surprised by the move either because it seems to go against the idea that the workplace of the future, enabled by modern technology, is best defined by where people are than where they are supposed to be, or perhaps because as a new mom, it is assumed that Mayer will want to make it easier for working moms to work by letting them work from home.  The tide of opinion seems to be that Mayer’s new policy is at least strange, and likely a mistake.

As a telecommuter myself at various points in my career, including to some extent now, my take is rather more nuanced.  Telecommuting is a great option for some employees at most businesses, even at Yahoo!  But for most businesses and most employees, working in a communal environment offers important advantages that can make or break a business. Done right, the office environment offers two key competitive advantages over the dispersed (i.e. home) working environment: it fosters collaborative thinking and it promotes esprit de corps.

As for facilitating collaboration, as society becomes more complex and interconnected, innovation, the lifeblood of a thriving business, becomes more and more a collaborative process.  It is just plain easier to collaborate with people face to face than smartphone to smartphone.  As for esprit de corps, the importance is too often overlooked in a culture that more often promotes the individual than the team.  But whether we are talking about sports or business, whether it involves teammates or workmates, other things being equal, more esprit de corps is going to result in more success.  Just ask the folks at Google or Apple, or in my own experience in and around the high impact entrepreneurial and investing space, the folks at just about any young, high-risk/high-reward startup out to change the world.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that telecommuting is always a bad idea.  There are jobs, as there are sports, that are basically individual activities; for example the proverbial bond trader who plies his trade from his home office in Vermont.  There are people that work better without the distractions of a busy workplace, for example, some journalists I’ve met.  And there are situations where the fit/synergies between the business and the employee are greater than the real costs of working remotely; for example, some entrepreneurial lawyers I know.  But at the end of the day, I still think the best question for Marissa Mayer is, “what took you so long?”



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