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Jakarta Post

Working from home: Is it the end of an era of going remote?

  • Alvin Lee

    The Jakarta Post

Singapore   /   Sat, June 8, 2013   /  03:35 pm

Over a million more Americans worked from home in 2010 than in 2005, according to the US Census Bureau: 5.82 million versus 4.79 million, or 4.3 percent of the total workforce, compared to 3.6 percent in 2005.

In Boulder, Colorado, the city with the highest percentage of people working from home, more than one in 10 (11.3 percent) work remotely.

In Sunnyvale, California, the 2010 figures are 5.1 percent, up from 4 percent back in 2005. Why is Sunnyvale important? Because this is where Yahoo! has its headquarters, and it was a change in policy by the new CEO, Marissa Mayer, that has put the work-at-home issue front and center for many companies.

Simply put, Ms Mayer '€” who herself became a mother for the first time earlier this year, and may have been thought to favor work-at-home-policies '€” quashed the option altogether. There had been reported allegations that Yahoo! employees abused the system; media coverage portrayed the move as a step backwards.

Prof. Erin Meyer disagrees.

'€œI believe the move by Marissa Mayer was a smart one,'€ says the INSEAD affiliate professor of Organizational Behavior. '€œShe saw that productivity per individual at Google was higher than productivity per individual at Yahoo! . Google generates US$931,657 in revenue per employee, 170 percent higher than Yahoo'€™s $344,758 per employee. If Mayer'€™s goal is to increase that productivity level, bringing people into the same office space is one quick and inexpensive way to accomplish that goal.'€

The human touch

Amid all the brouhaha about Yahoo!'€™s new policy, it would be appropriate to re-examine the leaked memo from Yahoo! head of HR Jackie Reses that not only sparked off the big debate but also its purported objectives.

'€œTo become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.'€

Meyer, who directs INSEAD'€™s Managing Global Virtual Teams program, explains that these objectives are more easily met with face-to-face communication.

'€œBecause we are human beings, when we collaborate, we rely heavily on what I call mutual adjustment. Mutual adjustment means that you notice how others are working around you, they notice how you are working, and through hundreds of subtle cues you adjust to one another, and the collaboration happens. When people are geographically dispersed, they don'€™t have the same high level of cues in order to mutually adjust which makes collaboration more difficult,'€ Meyer said.

'€œIt'€™s a myth that virtual teamwork costs less than face-to-face collaboration. There is this idea that because it requires less electricity, less desk space, and less rent to collaborate virtually, it'€™s therefore less expensive. But it takes a lot more time to organize and monitor effective virtual teamwork.

When we are working together but working apart it requires a much greater effort to assure the communication has passed as expected. Misunderstandings are more likely and that leads to higher costs.'€

Teamwork is not just about communication; it is also about cooperation. Cooperation requires trust between team members.

'€œIt is difficult for humans to trust people that they don'€™t frequently see face to face. If I can'€™t look in your eyes and see your facial expressions or get to know you beyond your voice on the phone it is harder for me to judge if you are trustworthy,'€ Meyer said.

 '€œA high level of trust between team members is one of the most important factors to efficient collaboration. If the team leader does not invest significant time and energy in finding ways to build trust amongst team members who rarely see one another, trust is likely to remain low. Therefore managing geographically dispersed teams effectively is significantly more expensive than managing collocated teams.

'€œI imagine that Mayer understood this when making the decision to bring her employees back to the same office space.'€

Is there a need to work remotely?

Mother of two Nancy Wee is a part-time graphics designer who works from home.

'€œI sometimes prefer to be in the office if the project is complicated and requires more input from the client. But [when I work from home], I can quickly finish the tasks and then I can do other things. If I am stuck in the office, I cannot do my own thing even if I am done with the work. I have to wait for the proper hours to be over.'€

Wee is self-employed, but is open to working full-time in the office, cites examples of why working from home can sometimes be more productive from the company'€™s standpoint.

 '€œI think the key thing is the manager has to be very clear on the agenda. Some clients asked me to go onsite and they just talk and talk. If they just email me the job specs, I can easily do the job.'€

That ties in with a 2010 INSEAD Knowledge article written by Prof. Meyer, which explains that '€œvirtual teams need a manager who provides clearly-defined direction and removes all ambiguity from the process'€.

 '€œIn the last decade, a large number of companies in the U.S. have put in place home office structures without training their team leads on how to manage these dispersed teams differently. With the excitement of newer communication mediums such as Skype and WebEx many companies have built the work-from-home movement on the premise that we can just as easily collaborate over a virtual medium as we can face to face. But that is not the case. No matter how sophisticated the communication tool it does not replicate the effectiveness of face to face collaboration.'€

Home run?

Wee'€™s experience may be a strike against Yahoo! boss Mayer'€™s much-discussed policy, but one might say it reflects an employee'€™s working preference rather than any clear strategic advantage or disadvantage for the company. But according to Professor Meyer, there are other instances where not having everyone under one roof is not only a necessity, but also an advantage.

'€œSuppose you put in place a project team where people from different regions collaborate to develop a product that responds successfully to a variety of local markets,'€ says Meyer. '€œIn this case you need people who are IN those markets and regions to work as one team. So in that case, team members will need to be geographically distributed and there is a clear, positive reason they need to be in different places. In that case, the benefit of the geographic distribution likely outweighs the disadvantages. However, Yahoo! does not seem to be in one of these situations.'€

Erin Meyer is affiliate professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD. She directs the Managing Global Virtual Teams and Management Skills for International Business programs, part of INSEAD'€™s portfolio of executive education programs.

Article provide courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge (

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