Where We Work

work-from-home

A few months ago my 10 year-old daughter created a chart to track what all of the members of our family were up to each day. I was struck by the fact that in addition to activities like SOCCER, GYMNASTICS, SCHOOL and WORK, there was a category called WORK FROM HOME.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Like much of today’s workforce, I’ve telecommuted in varying degrees for the past 15 years. There’s even currently a hit song titled “Work from Home” by Fifth Harmony:

You don’t gotta go to work, work, work, work, work, work, work
But you gotta put in work, work, work, work, work, work, work
You don’t gotta go to work, work, work, work, work, work, work
Let my body do the work, work, work, work, work, work, work, work
We can work from home, oh, oh, oh oh
We can work from home, oh, oh, oh oh

You get the picture.

About 30 million Americans work from home at least one day a week, a figure predicted to increase 63% in the next five years. When my kids were small I worked from home one day a week, a privilege of being a partner in a small business. Our babysitter still came on those days; there was no way I could juggle work and full child care responsibility at the same time. But I was able to spend some time with the kids, take them to doctor’s appointments, start dinner, and throw in a load of laundry or two.  I did my share of conference calls from the parking lot at Bed Bath & Beyond, but because I didn’t spend three hours commuting, running out for the occasional errand still gave me more solid “at my desk” hours than a typical commute day.

At a certain point I made the decision to stop working from home on a regular basis. I found it easier to get things done when I was in the office and could catch the production director in person to get a quick estimate rather than stalking her by email, or sit with a designer to look over his shoulder as we worked on a project together. I also had a lot of guilt on my WFH days. If I did something around the house, I felt like I should be working. If I was working, I thought I should be spending time with the kids. The last few years at my agency I stayed home only when I had an event (like a school concert in the middle of the day) and working from home gave me more productive hours than if I had schlepped into the city.

I found it annoying when people (including my husband) would ask, “Are you off today?” and I had to stress, “No, I’m working from home.” A WFH day isn’t a vacation day…or at least it shouldn’t be. As a manager, I did find that some people on our staff took advantage of our largesse and “work from home” turned into “work from the pool” or “work from the mall.” The key for managers and employees to agree about workday hours upfront and put their expectations in writing. Allowing employees to work from home or have flexible hours were benefits that didn’t cost us a dime, but engendered appreciation and loyalty from our staff.

 

When she joined Yahoo as CEO in 2013, Marissa Mayer famously (or infamously) banned working from home to encourage the sharing of ideas. I agree that while, “people are more productive when they’re alone…they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.” But like Mayer herself, this policy didn’t quite catch on. Once employees are given a benefit it’s hard to take it away.

In Clash of the Generations: Managing the New Workplace Reality, Valerie Grubb notes that workers from different generations have different perspectives on working outside the office. Gen Xers like me, “…place a high value on their individual freedom (including setting their own hours and incorporating work-from-home options).” While Baby Boomers are more likely to want to keep their work at the office, “64 percent of Millennials would like to occasionally work from home…” Telecommuting employees have a longer, more productive workday than their office-bound counterparts. There’s no travel time, it’s quiet and there are fewer interruptions.

A Vice President of Human Resources at a pharmaceutical company, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me he’s a “big fan” of allowing employees to work from home as long as they’re reachable and the work gets done. “I do not think it should be every day,” he said, “as the collaboration factor is really important.” His viewpoint isn’t completely in line with his company’s corporate culture, however. While there’s no official policy on the matter and managers are allowed to approve working from home on a case-by-case basis, it’s frowned upon and most staffers don’t feel comfortable doing it very often.

The FWA (Flexible Work Arrangements) policy at a major consulting company includes flextime, job sharing, telecommuting/working from home, and reduced work/part-time options. Their goal is to create a culture that supports employees’ work/life balance and adds to diversity within the workforce. Perhaps most important, the official policy states that career advancement shouldn’t be impacted by employees’ use of FWAs. It’s crucial that management throughout the organization buys into the policy and doesn’t penalize their employees for utilizing it.

But there’s a downside to this flexibility. Because technology has allowed us to always be connected, people feel the need to be available 24/7/365. It takes some willpower to set boundaries for ourselves so that “working from home” doesn’t turn into “working all the time.” You’ve got to put down the cell phone and be totally present when it’s family time.

There are also social benefits of interacting with other human beings. Last spring I worked for an organization with a predominantly virtual workforce. When they’re not on-site with clients most employees work from their homes, saving the company a ton in overhead. While they utilized tools like Skype and Slack to assist with communication and collaboration, there was still an element of camaraderie missing.

Working from home hasn’t just reshaped the office, it’s reshaping our homes, too. Business is booming at retailers like Staples and IKEA that meet the growing demand for home office furniture and supplies. But what if you don’t have enough space for a desk, want to get away from that crying baby or annoying roommate, or need access to pricey office equipment?

The latest trend for consultants and entrepreneurs is co-working spaces like WeWork, which sells itself as not only a place to rest your laptop but a physical and virtual community. WeWork has 128 locations in 39 cities with plans to expand to every continent (except Antarctica) by 2017. Benefits for its members include access to health insurance, a social network, events and workshops.

While co-working spaces are a haven for freelancers and startups in cramped urban areas, I haven’t seen many people in the Serendipity Labs location in my suburban New Jersey town. Most people in the area have room in their homes for an office space and are content to decamp to the local Starbucks when they feel the need to flee the house. Serendipity Labs lists 9 company-owned and franchised locations on their website with over 100 under development. Their vision is “to provide premium, members-only workplaces with high performance meeting facilities at corporate standards.”

If a local co-working location isn’t hip enough for you, you can join the growing number of millennials who work anywhere in the world as long as they’ve got a laptop and Wi-Fi. Take Uber to your Airbnb in Tahiti and really leave the office behind!

Personally, I’m pro-choice. I believe it’s between an employee and his/her manager to agree upon an arrangement that meets both of their needs. Employers should empower their staff to be creative and build a supportive environment that increases employee satisfaction and productivity.