Working from Home

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.

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  • Ah well, I’m retired. But that doesn’t stop me working from home!

    This morning I researched and wrote a short piece on Penzias and Wilson’s Nobel Prize winning work in the 1960s on an unusual microwave signal from space ( ). This afternoon as the weather was good I did a bit of work in the garden. Now I’m back at my desk at 18:00 thinking about planning the next article.

    I used to spend time in an office, working for Unilever on web development. Although things were flexible enough, we spent most of our time together because interaction as a team was useful. And before that I worked in PC support and before that electron microscopy, neither of those had scope for working at home.

    But where home working is possible it really should be encouraged, or at least made easy. It saves travelling time, reduces road congestion, reduces traffic accidents and fuel use. It’s a win-win no brainer. Shame on you, Yahoo!.

  • Pat Pope

    I work in IT and work from home generally two days a week. There is nothing that I do at the office that I can’t do at home. I came in today because I had been on vacation for a week and felt the need to get out of the house, but I also needed to submit an expense report and don’t have a printer at home. Other than that, meetings that I would normally call into from the office, I can do the same from home. My work is all computer-based, either working with Excel mostly or in e-mail. I get the point about the value of in-person interactions, but when people are sitting in offices e-mailing each other and calling into meetings that are located just upstairs or down the hall from their cube, where is the in-person interaction?

  • I’ve worked from home full-time 5 of the past 10 years (and part-time another 3), so I know the ins and outs of telecommuting very well. On the plus side it has been an enormous savings of time and money. Less gas, less mileage on my car, fewer expenses for meals and clothes. I have been able to attend all my kids’ school functions, go with them to the doctor and be a part of their lives in a thousand different ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Telecommuting has enabled me to do fun jobs for companies half a continent away without having to relocate; also a savings, as Texas is far cheaper to live in than California.

    The downsides are equally as remarkable, though. It is very tough to connect with co-workers when you only see them once a month or less. You find it difficult to have a voice; you might be a part of scheduled meetings, but the dozens of impromptu meetings that pop up at the office sometimes decide direction before you get your say. Work and home life begin to blend; you are never really away from home, but you are also never really away from the office. I found myself working far longer hours than I ever had before, often from early mornings to late in the evenings. During difficult periods my wife would tell me that although I was there all the time, my attention was never away from work.

    Work can suffer as well. I’m a software developer; collaborative processes like pair programming, group design and code reviews are difficult even with the best online tools. Unless both you and the office have excellent phone systems or microphones, it can be difficult to hear what is happening in meetings (and, as someone who has worked for multiple startups, this is rarely the case). When you get multiple people working from home, schedules can become so frayed that project management becomes impossible. And not everybody works equally well from home; many people have trouble canceling out all the distractions and being productive.

    I won’t comment on Mayer’s new rule at Yahoo. Perhaps the work-from-home atmosphere has become toxic; that certainly wouldn’t surprise me. All I know is, I would greatly hesitate to work for a company where it wasn’t an option (at least during emergency circumstances), and would refuse if the commute from home was more than 30-40 minutes. In the competitive world of software development, especially at a time like this when demand is greater than the available pool of talent, I can’t imagine that they won’t pay somewhat for this rule. Especially their best and brightest.

  • Scot– love, love, love working from home!

  • While I agree with you about working from home, I think we shouldn’t be so quick to judge Mayer’s decision. Apparently, she made the move after checking the VPN logs and finding that workers weren’t actually working: “The reasoning was simple and non-technical; if employees weren’t using the VPN they couldn’t be working or contributing to Yahoo as a company.” (

  • Marshall

    Working from home is about being more connected to home; stuff like kids, wives, … Of course when talking about “work”, modern capitalism demands that workers fit their private lives around the demands of the workplace. Actually the demands of the Boss, which is Marrisa.

    @ Joe #5: Of course they couldn’t be talking on the phone to a customer or supplier, working out a design problem on actual paper, or Reading the Manual. Or shifting their working hours so as to meet the kids coming home from school. Everyone must be pushing paper from 9 to 5 or else it isn’t real work.

  • jon

    Ironically, the workers who are affected by the Yahoo! policy are those in customer service. Many companies of all sorts have successfully had home-based workers, particularly in customer service (Southwest Airlines as an example). Also, the people affected are some 400 out of 11,000 employees (or 4 percent). Yahoo! has much larger problems than some people working from home.