Yahoo’s recent decision to eliminate telecommuting sparked a lot of controversy and ignited a major debate about whether employees should be allowed to work from home. Virgin CEO Richard Branson called the decision “perplexing” and said it was, “a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever.” On the other side of the equation, professional blowhard and inherited multi-millionaire turned billionaire Donald Trump sided with Yahoo, tweeting, “@MarissaMayer is right to expect Yahoo employees to come to the workplace vs. working at home. She is doing a great job!”
Whether or not you agree with Yahoo’s decision to require its employees to physically come into the office on a daily basis, the controversy surrounding the announcement has raised an interesting question about what impact working from home has on an individual employee. If you find yourself in the increasingly common position of being able to work from home, are you putting your future career prospects at risk by doing so?
According to a Stanford study, working from home is actually more productive than working in an office. Not only does giving employees the option to work remotely reduce turnover and increase job satisfaction, it also cuts down on the average number of sick days and boosts the total number of hours worked. However, in spite of that, research published in MIT Sloan Management Review showed that regardless of productivity, employees who opt to work from home are less likely to be promoted than their in-office counterparts.
In the experiment, managers were presented with a series of scenarios in which the only difference was whether the employee was working from home or in an office environment. The people working in the office were rated as being more dependable and industrious despite producing the exact same quality of work. Whether or not the double standard is fair is totally irrelevant, because the reality is that working from home can be a significant obstacle for people looking to work their way up the corporate ladder.
No doubt there are countless people who abuse the opportunity to work from home. And, as more information comes out about the culture (and lack of accountability) within Yahoo’s current work environment, it seems like cracking the whip might have been borne out of necessity rather than the antiquated adherence to “working side-by-side” that Yahoo suggests. Still, anyone who’s worked in an office environment can also attest that the simple act of being present at your desk most certainly does not equate to being a productive and useful employee.
I’ve been on both sides of the fence. As someone who transitioned from working in a conventional office environment to working remotely, I’ve seen a significant increase in both the quality of my work and my overall productivity since making the switch. Gone are the 15-minute coffee breaks where you catch up with coworkers about the previous day’s events. The same goes for the meandering meetings where chit-chat intersects with donuts, which intersects with small amounts of actual work being discussed…because after all, you’re all stuck at the office until 5:00 anyway, so what’s the hurry?
Working from home allows for a more streamlined work day. If you need something from a coworker you IM them, email them, or pick up the phone and call. Otherwise, you have endless amounts of uninterrupted time in a quiet, comfortable work environment to power through your to-do list.
Obviously the anti-social element of telecommuting isn’t for everyone. For me, it works. For many of the subjects in the Stanford study I cited earlier, it didn’t. (Half of them opted to go back to an office environment at the conclusion of the study.) The key is offering people the choice and allowing them to find where they’ll be most productive.
Unfortunately, combating the stigma of working from home being nothing more than sitting around in pajamas and occasionally checking email is no easy task. Fair or not, slow response time on emails or a missed phone call during the middle of the day can have a more significant negative impact on an employee who telecommutes than it would on someone working out of a main office. Even within a company that supports working from home, it’s still possible to be subconsciously penalized for being “out of sight, out of mind.”
Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom, co-author of the work from home study, cautions, "Home workers can become forgotten workers. When the time comes for promotions you need to be on somebody's radar, and it's important to show yourself across the company so people know who they're talking to."
Is working from home a huge potential barrier to getting a promotion? Yes. Is it still worth it? It depends on your goals.
For me, I’m happy to make the trade off and am fortunate enough to work within a small company where productivity speaks for itself and politics don’t play any role in career advancement. However, for countless others it’s not so black and white.
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer wrote, “YOU can’t have everything you want, but you can have the things that really matter to you,” and that certainly holds true to working from home. Plenty of companies are starting to embrace the lower costs and higher job satisfaction that comes along with giving employees an increased amount of flexibility and freedom. But if you take them up on their offer you’re still running the risk of being passed over for promotions or discriminated against when looking for another job later on down the line.
Personally, it’s a risk I’m willing to take because I feel the pros outweigh the cons. Your mileage may vary. It’s up to you to decide what’s most important in your career. Just be aware that working from home might be a bit riskier than you thought.
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