Working from Home

The working from home discussion has been going on for the duration of my HR career.  Telecommuting was all the rage in mid 80’s through early 90’s as technology advancements coupled with long commutes made the prospect of working from home a day or so per week or month attractive to employees. Most companies saw this opportunity as a perk to be granted on discretionary basis rather than a productivity opportunity to be leveraged.

When commercial office space leases exploded in the large urban centers of the U.S. in the latter half of the 90’s , CFO’s got religion and saw telecommuting  as a way to grow the workforce without the attendant fixed cost of real estate.  Unfortunately the technology was not ready yet at the suburban level (anyone who ever tried to download a large file over dial-up modem knows what I’m talking about) and few workers were truly prepared either emotionally or intellectually for divorce from the office.  The boomlet fizzled quickly and telecommuting again became the province of the small percentage of people whose work aligned with their inclination and desire to work in general isolation.

Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School and Steve Kramer, and independent researcher and psychologist, wrote this story that generally finds what we have known remains true:

1)      Working from home on a occasional basis greatly contributes to worker happiness and satisfaction with their job (and hopefully the company).

2)      The quality of work from home is high when the work performed is “heads down” with little need for collaboration from co-workers or guidance from management.

3)      The overall quality of work often fades when close collaboration with co-workers is required, although there are companies (MicroSoft and GE come to mind) that have found paths to overcome this challenge.

4)      The old adage “Out of sight, out of mind” is apt; working from home for long stints may not be the best career development move.  I can recall at least two great opportunities that came my way early in my career simply because I was present when the idea popped in the executive’s head.

The authors of the HBR article have it right:  working from home remains a work in progress/