By Farhad Manjoo:
Working at home isn’t for everyone. As a writer, I work according to what Y Combinator’s Paul Graham calls the “maker’s schedule.” My job requires long stretches of distraction-free time, and my output, on any particular day, is sensitive to my mood and environment. Working at home gives me the freedom to adjust these variables to maximum effect: Sometimes I find that I write better if I start a column after dinner, while other times I hit a wall during the middle of the day, take an hour off to get a snack and jump in the shower, and then come back to produce a magnificent column about pajamas.
You might work differently. Maybe your mind is best primed by conversations with your co-workers about Downton Abbey. That’s fine. The point—and this is hardly groundbreaking—is that different people work differently. Any organization whose success depends on maximizing its workers’ productivity ought to allow their employees some degree of flexibility.
That brings us to Yahoo’s ridiculous new ban on working from home. Last week, All Things D’s Kara Swisher reported that Marissa Mayer, the beleaguered Web company’s new CEO, will force Yahoo’s few hundred remote workers to relocate to its offices. In a memo Swisher obtained, the company’s human-resources chief allows workers to “occasionally” stay home to “wait for the cable guy,” but otherwise requires people—I’m sorry, “Yahoos”—to submit to “the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.” Because this was an HR memo and therefore freed from any requirement to be truthful, it went on to declare that “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.” It added: “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.” (I asked Yahoo to explain the policy to me, and a spokeswoman responded with this brief statement: “We don’t discuss internal matters. This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home—this is about what is right for Yahoo!, right now.”)…The larger problem with the ban is its apparent cluelessness about how creative work occurs. Marissa Mayer is said to be a devoted office worker. Both her admirers and critics call her a workaholic, a woman who’s gotten ahead not just through talent but also by working longer hours than most other people. Yahoo is a Web and media company, a firm teeming with engineers, designers, writers, and editors—people whose work cannot only be accomplished remotely, but who may find working at home to be a better way to get things done. This decision suggests that Mayer doesn’t understand one of the most basic ideas about managing workers—that different people work in different ways, and that some kinds of pursuits are inhibited, rather than improved, by time in the office….
Modern communications technologies can also help. For instance, telepresence robots like the Beam and Anybot allow home workers to move a robotic avatar through a faraway office. People who work using these technologies have told me that they allow for offsite workers to interact with their colleagues very naturally. The more you use it, the more you feel like you’re really there.
Such remote-working technologies are going to get much better in the next few years. I suspect that in time, the distinction between working in the office and working at home will fade away. We’ll all be able to work from anywhere, at any time, and our work will be assessed by what we produce, not how much time we spend doing it. Except at Yahoo, where the only thing that counts is showing up.