Working at Home and Workplace Productivity

By Mark Nichol

The recent news that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is banning employees from working at home has caused a flurry of commentary in the media and among workers in the Internet industry. One aspect of the issue is how such a decision affects content producers.

Banning telecommuting is a heavy-handed strategy. The rationale for the policy change, according to a leaked Yahoo memo, is that the company needs employees to be available to collaborate with colleagues in person, but the irony in this statement from an Internet company is delicious.

Commentators have debated the wisdom of Yahoo’s approach, some arguing that telecommuting encourages slacking and others insisting that it boosts productivity. The truth, as is often the case, is somewhere in between.

At my last job before my current freelancing stint, I worked for a company that allowed most employees to work from home one day a week — until management decided that it wasn’t working out. The implicit reason was that some people were abusing the privilege, staying home and not getting much work done. In my case, what had been my most productive workday became just like any other, punctuated with interruptions and distractions and noisy coworkers.

Fortunately, the privilege was reinstated after a while, during which interval managers presumably were encouraged to keep closer tabs on the employees who reported to them. It is this point that any company considering whether to introduce or retain telecommuting should keep in mind: Some employees will game the system whether they’re working on site or at home. Also, it’s disingenuous to use the excuse about the necessity of working in physical proximity with colleagues when much of one’s work is solitary or involves communication with people at other company locations or other businesses.

There’s also another issue, one that makes this topic relevant to a site called Daily Writing Tips. Many employees do a significant amount of writing or editing even if their employer is not a publishing or communications company, and telecommuting gives them an opportunity to produce content in an environment with fewer distractions than the workplace offers.

I have worked at several companies where coworkers whose responsibilities entailed little or no composing of content played music, talked loudly or incessantly, and otherwise made it difficult for me to do what I was being paid to do. If this predicament sounds familiar to you, and even minimal telecommuting is not part of company policy, consider these possibilities:

1. Ask your manager to try to accommodate your need to work with minimal distractions, if only occasionally. If you cannot be relocated to a quieter workspace, perhaps you can at least sit somewhere else — a vacant office, a seldom-used conference room — from time to time, as when you need to draft an important report or produce some other significant amount of text.
2. Request the option to work on an offset schedule (starting very early in the morning or ending later at night) so that you have a couple of hours at the beginning or end of the day during which few, if any, other people are in your work area.
3. Ask your manager to monitor noise in the work area and follow up with reminders to employees to minimize sounds and distractions, including telephone conversations — and ask him or her to ban use of phones’ speaker functions. (And if people are allowed to listen to music at their desks, ask that they be required to use headphones.) Supervisors who have their own offices are often unaware of excessive noise (especially when certain workers suddenly become subdued and intent on their work when a manager appears), and they may need to be nudged to address the problem.
4. Suggest a policy that any conversation that takes more than a moment must take place in a meeting room or another area, because trying to write while the person seated next to you discusses a job-related problem (or a recent vacation) with a visiting colleague for half an hour is half an hour of your workday wasted.
5. Ask to be allowed to telecommute one or two days a week on a trial basis, suggesting that you and your manager agree on baseline productivity expectations. If your request is granted, make sure that you significantly exceed those benchmarks.

You may hesitate to make such suggestions, concerned that you will be viewed as a troublemaker, but emphasize the improved productivity and morale that will result for all, not just for you, if such policies are implemented. Your success, of course, will also depend on your manager’s competence and on the company culture.

Consider, too, asking for support from your colleagues (most, if not all, of whom are likely to sympathize and to agree that a quieter work environment would be beneficial). Finally, determine to go to your manager’s superior or to your company’s human resources director if your immediate supervisor does not resolve the issue.

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5 Responses to “Working at Home and Workplace Productivity”

  • Katie

    My job is inflexible. Elementary education. None of these options would apply to me or my coworkers. Therefore, I have nothing useful to say. It’s just that everytime you mentioned music, I pictured Milton, from Office Space. Made me smile and keep reading. Milton, listening to music with white Apple earbuds, at a reasonable volume, of course!

  • Shirlee

    I’ve found that using headphones myself helps cancel out distractions from my surroundings, but my work-from-home days are still my most productive.

  • Vicki

    I worked in a cubicle in a “cube farm” of 80 cubicles with no intervening walls, and no sound-dampening materials on walls or ceiling. People in the next group over held conference calls on speaker phone. People talked.

    I complained to our VP and Sr VP about the noise. Could we install sound-dampening wall coverings, for example? The Sr VP sent back a bright and cheery reply applauding the “spontaneous collaboration” environment we seemed to have and saying he’d love to come visit some time.

    They don;t want to tell people to take their conversations to a meeting room (even if there is a meeting room available) because they want “spontaneous collaboration” and “buzz”.

    The upper levels of a company, e.g. the Marissa Mayers of the world, have no concept of employees who need to produce content in an environment with fewer distractions than the workplace offers. They spend their days in meetings.

    They are not us.

  • Corinne McKay

    Thanks for this insightful and spot-on post. I worked from home (translating and writing) for 10 years and found that I gradually became less productive, as non-work responsibilities crept into the work day and work crept into home and family time. I’ve now moved to a co-working office where I am many, many times more productive, but we follow many of the policies that you suggest here. All personal phone calls taken in a conference room or hallway, no audible music, no speaker phone calls, and we try to be a little sociable while being very aware of the point at which conversations become annoying and distracting to others (which is faster than you think). I think that all “word people” simply cannot work without uninterrupted blocks of time, which are hard to carve out in a traditional office environment.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, Mr. Nichol, you are so right in stating that banning telecommuting is heavy-handed and stupid policy for an Internet applications company. Yes, indeed.
    You said “Internet company”, but for an Internet installation and maintenance company, people obviously have to go to work. In many cases, they have to travel to remote locations to work on the equipment by hand. This is also an “Internet company”. You need to be specific about what kind of a company you really mean.
    I am an electronics engineer, and in many cases I had to commute to work to use specialized and expensive equipment there. However, in one case I lived close enough that I only needed to take a modest bicycle ride to get to and from work. In another case, I simply walked to and from work. Also, when I worked for a consulting company during the 1980s, I needed to use the technical libraries at the company frequently. That material was not available on the Internet then, and furthermore, Internet access was not widely available in offices and homes, then. Even now, there are probably some useful references that are not available on the Internet, but they can be found in libraries.

    There is something else that has been left out from the whole discussion. No matter where you work, including at Internet companies, there are new employees who need training. That is inevitable – just in case you do not believe this. The best way to teach and train someone is on a face-to-face basis, and companies that do not do this are shirking their responsibilities. Not only the company, but our entire society suffers when people at companies fail to do this. I have even seen Help Wanted ads in which the managers announced their intentions to shirk their responsibilities in stating that they intended to give no training at all to any new hires.
    I worked for a small consulting company in engineering where my boss taught me a lot based on his wide experience, but I returned this by teaching him a lot based on my master’s degree and my experience elsewhere.
    So, all of the reports about Yahoo omit the important issue of training new employees, which requires face-to-face contact.

    D.A.W.

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