I often get asked by companies about the future of work and about best practices in managing global talent.
In a recent interview I did with popular business blog "The International Entrepreneur," I mentioned that different things motivate people. What people value often draws influence from culture or norms, and companies should try to understand what motivates people to perform. Then these companies can build systems, incentives and processes around that. (You can check out more of that interview here: A Twist on Offshoring: Interview with Patrick Linton).
One major area that a lot of companies are trying to understand right now is whether letting their employees work from home is a good or bad thing. With the widespread increase of online freelancers, and people generally getting more and more accustomed to remote (ie not face-to-face) working, it would be easy to make blanket statements, saying that work-from-home works. And a lot of the time is does - in the right context.
So why have we seen a media frenzy against decisions made by Yahoo! or Reddit - companies that are "cruelly forcing" their employees to work in an office? By doing quick a Google search, you'll see that this made many bloggers (probably writing from home) claim these decisions as backward thinking that stifles innovation. Richard Branson even said that this was a "backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever."
I personally like working from home when I need to, while it is tempting to generalize based on my own preferences, the work from home issue is not as black and white as cubicle=bad; home=good. When businesses start to look at their work-from-home policies, they should start by taking into account the following 3 often overlooked areas:
- Context matters.
- Culture and norms matter.
- Infrastructure matters.
Reason #1: Different Workforces = Different Context
If you dig past most pieces about working from home, you may be surprised that there is some actual real data on the subject, and the benefits of working from home are not nearly as black and white, especially when you look at the subject through a global vs. local lens.
I found an interesting 2011 poll conducted by global research company Ipsos for Reuters News. They took a sample size of 11,383 online connected employees from 24 countries, and asked a wide range of questions about telecommuting or working from home. I found it interesting, for good or for bad, that telecommuting is primarily taking place in emerging markets. Those working in the Middle East and Africa (27%), Latin America (25%) and Asia-Pacific (24%) are considerably more likely than those in North America (9%) and Europe (9%) to telecommute “on a frequent basis.”
India, which had the highest percentage of people telecommuting on a frequent basis, also ranked high on negative factors associated with working from home:
- India was the most likely country to 'strongly agree' that 'not seeing colleagues face to face every day makes telecommuters feel socially isolated'
- India was the most likely country to 'strongly agree' that telecommuting causes more family conflict
- India was the 2nd most likely country to 'strongly agree' that telecommuting damages chances for promotion
How do we interpret this? Could it be that just because places have high work-from-home rates, doesn't mean that it’s necessarily a good thing? I don't think any hard conclusions can be made from an indicative poll like this, but, I do think it does raise some questions that are often not asked.
Reason #2: Culture and Norms Differ
So, data explaining the effectiveness of working from home may be missing the point.
The question we should be asking is this: if 56% of India's workforce works from home, is that because they want to, or because they have no choice?
In terms of the likelihood to take an offer to work from home, the softest support exists in developed and wealthy Japan. Is it because in a Japanese work setting, workers need to go to the office to be successful, and the infrastructure to physically get them there is in place?
With experience working in many of these markets, I can offer an anecdote that I’ve heard many companies and business leaders agree to: in many places in the world, work-from-home simply doesn't work.
I conducted an interview recently with a candidate in the Philippines. He explained why he was looking to work in an office instead of continuing to work from home. His answer was that working from home was lonely, and he often felt left out of the company culture of his overseas-based counterparts. He also missed building relationships and networking with others on a day-to-day basis.
Reason #3: Infrastructure Availability Varies
Having a desire to work from home is not the only variable in the equation; now come the practical pieces. We've learned that the very countries where talent is most competitive are also the very places where working from home simply doesn't work. Internet infrastructure is poor, electricity is unreliable, people burn out, and family pressures eek in. As a result, performance suffers.
Countries like the Philippines - a country with a large number of online freelancers working from home - have poor internet infrastructure in the majority of residential areas. Internet connections in the Philippines are among the slowest in the world, according to rankings by Internet broadband testing company Ookla (166th among the 195 countries included in its survey). Upgrading is either not possible or too expensive.
An easy way to avoid infrastructure issues is to have workers in an office. The norm in countries like India, the Philippines or other rapidly developing talent markets is to have power back-up generators, and over-the-top redundant internet connections to ensure continuity - options that someone working from home would not be able to set up nor access.
As with all things, I don't think there’s one answer to the question "should my employees work from home?". The best answer I can give is that you should do both, and context, culture and infrastructure should impact your decision as a manager or business owner surrounding work-from-home policies. In fact, a Gallup study found that working remotely less than 20% of the time is very good for engagement, but doing so 100% of the time is "very bad".
It’s obvious that work has and is rapidly changing, meaning that work doesn't only get done in an office - it gets done on a phone call, with an email, over Skype... and yes, even face-to-face. I predict that the future of work is somewhere in this grey area. - Offices won’t be the only place where work gets done, but they’ll continue to exist as places to go and brainstorm, socialize, network, and yes, to get things done.
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