The truth about working at home

The silly media debates over whether telecommuting is bad or good miss the point. It's all about the quality of management

Some people think Marissa Mayer's edict last week that all Yahoo employees must come into the office signals a tipping point. If a Silicon Valley company is clamping down, it will set off a domino effect that causes employers everywhere to kill touchy-feely work-at-home policies. Pull up your socks and come into the office, slackers!

But now that reports have surfaced indicating remote Yahoo employees weren't logging in, it seems pretty clear Mayer's decision was specific to Yahoo and its travails. Mayer's move has no real implications for telecommuting in general, which continues to rise in popularity. 

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When you acknowledge the truth about working at home, it's easy to see why the trend is thriving. If you have a white collar job -- and especially if you work in IT -- you probably have little real time off at all. In many cases, working at home is one side of an unspoken bargain that goes something like this: I know you're working (or at least on call) most of your waking hours, so in exchange you can spend a certain percentage of the traditional 9-to-5 work time at home.

And several studies have shown this bargain seems to benefit everyone. According to a 2010 study of 24,436 IBM employees by Brigham Young University, people worked longer hours and had higher morale when telecommuting was permitted. In the wake of Mayer's decision, it's popular to quote a recent Stanford study of a Chinese travel agency that showed a 13 percent improvement in the performance of home workers. A 2011 Dice survey even revealed that 35 percent of respondents would be willing to take a 10 percent pay cut in order to telecommute.

The modern world of work
The fact is that the 40-hour workweek has been dead for maybe 20 or 30 years. With the hours most people pull today, you might conclude that business management has triumphed and the majority of exempt employees are effectively locked in a kind of off-hours servitude whether they realize it or not.

Or you could say that the line between work and personal life has blurred beyond recognition -- and maybe that's not such a bad thing. Personally, I think it's false to maintain the fiction that my job doesn't exist when I'm with my family, and I would quit in a heartbeat if I were banned from messaging or talking to my family when I'm in the office. People are not automatons who switch back and forth between personal and work modes. In general, the option to work at home one day a week -- or more, if child care is an issue -- mixes things up in a healthy way.

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