In an average week, I work about 55 hours. You probably won't be surprised to learn that I work from home. I say that because, in my experience, people who work from home tend to work harder.
One person whom that tidbit about my workweek might surprise is Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Or maybe she would just think I'm lying. Mayer, quite famously, has told all of her company's telecommuters to spend time and gas money traveling to and from the office. It's part of her plan to turn the struggling Internet company around. Seriously. And she's not alone. Best Buy is doing likewise.
Please don't think that this column is a self-interested rant, motivated by a fear that the anti-telecommuting mentality will spread until I too am back in a cubicle. I'm a freelancer; there's no office for me to return to. No, the fact is that I know that telecommuting has many advantages, for both employers and employees, and I believe it would be a mistake to regress.
The thing about judging a telecommuting program is that you have to decide what you want from your employees. It's been reported that Mayer looked at Yahoo's VPN logs and determined that too many telecommuters were spending too little time on the company network. More soundly, Best Buy had relied on a policy called Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), which looks not at hours on the job but at performance.
ROWE's creators, consultants Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, quickly got in on this debate, sending an open letter to Mayer. In the 1950s, they wrote, "collaboration required physical presence and lots of paper," but today, "we have numerous tools that allow us to work from literally anywhere on the planet."
Mayer argues that collaboration suffers when colleagues aren't constantly bumping against each other in hallways and the cafeteria. Well, every day I work with colleagues scattered around the world. We are bound together by email, instant messaging and that quaint 19th century invention called the telephone. I've collaborated on books with people who lived thousands of miles away. This very column is being written in Asheville, N.C., and it will be edited in Puerto Rico and copy-edited and posted to the Web in Massachusetts. As to the argument that there's no real trust without face time: In one case, I wrote a book with a friend of over 20 years who I've yet to meet in the "real" world.
Sure, not every job is suitable for telecommuting. But for those that are, there are multiple benefits. As David Gewirtz, author of How to Save Jobs, has noted, Americans spend an average of 52 minutes a day commuting. That comes to about 225 hours a year. Most telecommuters that I know end up giving that extra time to their employers. They sit down at their workstation earlier and get up from it later. They aren't watching the clock but instead working on and completing tasks.
And what's the price of all that extra face time? Will companies have to buy or rent more space to accommodate the workers they call back into the office? Are they ready to pay for the power those extra bodies will use? Are they going to need more printers, parking spaces and support staffers? Put it all together and you get people spending less time on work while companies spend more money on office infrastructure. When you put it that way, Mayer's big idea just doesn't make any sense.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.