The Long Unhappy History of Working From Home
In the first few days of the lockdown, we featured a piece in 3L-3S, which waxed eloquent about the benefits of Working From Home (WFH) and how it is here to stay. Indeed, the ensuing period saw several large corporations implementing policies where large proportions of their workforce would end up WFH permanently. Facebooks aims to have half its workforce work from home whilst India’s very own TCS has set a goal of having not more than 25% of their staff work from its office premises by 2025. However, nearing four months of WFH, from our own experience at Marcellus and elsewhere, suggests it is not a one-way street. There are significant challenges even in industries which are largely digital in nature for WFH, especially around collaboration, efficiency and culture. Despite the temptations of reduction in office rentals, several businesses are keenly getting their staff back in office. This piece in the NYT brings this other side of the WFH argument and presents a finely balanced case – for and against. It starts of by reminding people that this hasn’t been the first drive towards WFH and the experience historically hasn’t been particularly great.
“A few years ago, Mr. Laermer let the employees of RLM Public Relations work from home on Fridays. This small step toward telecommuting proved a disaster, he said. He often couldn’t find people when he needed them. Projects languished.
“Every weekend became a three-day holiday,” he said. “I found that people work so much better when they’re all in the same physical space.”
IBM came to a similar decision. In 2009, 40 percent of its 386,000 employees in 173 countries worked remotely. But in 2017, with revenue slumping, management called thousands of them back to the office.
“Working from home is a strategic move, not just a tactical one that saves money,” said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. “A lot of it comes down to trust. Do you trust your people?”
Companies large and small have been trying for decades to make working from home work. As long ago as 1985, the mainstream media was using phrases like “the growing telecommuting movement.” Peter Drucker, the management guru, declared in 1989 that “commuting to office work is obsolete.”
Telecommuting was a technology-driven innovation that seemed to offer benefits to both employees and executives. The former could eliminate ever-lengthening commutes and work the hours that suited them best. Management would save on high-priced real estate and could hire applicants who lived far from the office, deepening the talent pool.
And yet many of the ventures were eventually downsized or abandoned. Apart from IBM, companies that publicly pulled back on telecommuting over the past decade include Aetna, Best Buy, Bank of America, Yahoo, AT&T and Reddit. Remote employees often felt marginalized, which made them less loyal. Creativity, innovation and serendipity seemed to suffer.
Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, created a furor when she forced employees back into offices in 2013. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings,” a company memo explained.
Tech companies proceeded to spend billions on ever more lavish campuses that employees need never leave. Facebook announced plans in 2018 for what were essentially dormitories. Amazon redeveloped an entire Seattle neighborhood. When Patrick Pichette, the former chief financial officer at Google, was asked, “How many people telecommute at Google?” he said he liked to answer, “As few as possible.”