Home working: does it help or hinder productivity and creativity?

5 Mar
Who says home workers are less productive and creative? (pic: istockphoto.com/LifeImagesLLC)

Who says home workers are less productive and creative? (pic: istockphoto.com/LifeImagesLLC)

Home working is a hot topic, thanks to the ban on employees working from home by Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer. She outlawed home working after checking the stats on how often homeworkers logged onto work systems from home, and she decided it wasn’t enough. Her argument, set out in a memo that was leaked, is this: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

Ms Mayer’s decision has sparked outrage and support in equal measures. Some have pointed out the irony of the head of a digital communications company wanting to work face-to-face. Others have said competitiveness and long hours are what’s needed at Yahoo!

A business owner argues that social media has made us more isolated, and there really is no substitute for human contact in business relationships. “No level of Skype Calls or FaceTime conversations will ever replace the reality of looking a colleague, customer or supplier in the eye and shaking their hand,” argues Pimlico Plumbers CEO Charlie Mullins.

A childcare expert from the NCT has said that working from home benefits neither mother nor child. Elizabeth Duff is quoted as saying: “You can’t adequately look after a child and do a job well if you work at home all week. In emergencies, it has to be done. But in general it shouldn’t be.”

My view is that home working can be fantastic for productivity. A day working at home means starting at whatever time you want, finishing when you want, and finding time in between to tick off those chores that otherwise pile up at the end of a week working full time. If you’re distracted by things like the fridge, the TV or the pile or ironing, then home working isn’t for you. I agree that trying to juggle looking after a child with meeting deadlines is difficult if not impossible. But working from home cuts short the commute, and more importantly relieves the agony of being stuck on a train knowing you’re going to be charged extra by your nursery or childminder for picking up your child late.

On the other hand, working in an office is great for creativity. The chance to chat, swap ideas and devise ideas in a group that you wouldn’t have generated on your own is priceless. The wisdom of the group can be greater and more exciting than the efforts of an individual. But with that creativity and side-by-side working does come the temptation to chat, gossip, waste time. I’ve worked with people who’re always praised for staying late but who spend most of their day wandering the office ‘networking’. Where’s the productivity in that?

Ms Mayer’s comment about having everyone working side-by-side is a sound one. But is that coming from reasons of creativity or reasons of control? In other words, is it to give managers a better grip on what their employees are up to during their working day. That has to be applauded to some extent – but then staff do need to be trusted to complete and exceed their workload and come up with workable and competition-beating ideas without a manager breathing down their neck.

In short, I don’t believe the decision to work from home should be one size fits all. Can’t it be ‘and’ rather than ‘either/or’? That decision depends on the company, the strategy, the ability and attitude of staff, the strength of managers and a robust culture. The flip side of control is micro-management – and neither creativity nor productivity will benefit from that.

 

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