Working from home: A case-by-case consideration
By Edwin Yapp March 12, 2013
- Yahoo’s move to axe working from home has pros and cons
- Work-from-home practices need proper guidelines & practices
ANALYSIS OVER the last two weeks, tech media giant Yahoo has been in the limelight not so much for its performance on Wall Street or its strategy going forward, but for an unlikely piece of news – how its CEO Marissa Mayer has terminated its Work From Home (WFH) programme.
In a leaked memo first revealed on Feb 22 by All Things Digital, Mayer ruled that staff can no longer work from home from June this year. The tech blog added that after June, employees who work from home must comply without exception or quit.
This further angered impacted employees because many felt they were initially hired with the assumption that they could work more flexibly, the blog added.
The leaked memo, attributed to Yahoo human resources head Jacqueline Reses, read, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussion, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”
Mayer received a barrage of brickbats for her decision, attracting high profile criticism from luminaries like billionaire Richard Branson to WFH advocacy groups like Working Mother.
And what may have made the case worse is the revelation that Mayer could have merely used mathematics and raw data to make her decision, a move that may seem cold and calculated to some of the WFH employees affected by this new policy.
In a Business Insider report, Mayer, who spent several frustrated months looking at how empty Yahoo parking lots were, consulted Yahoo's VPN (virtual private networks) logs to see if remote employees were checking in enough.
Apparently Mayer discovered they were not — and her decision was made, noted the business portal.
Complicating this matter is that for many working in South-East Asia, the WFH culture hasn’t fully permeated and that many countries in the region do not even advocate such practices, let alone have policies or guidelines to deal with the WFH phenomenon.
Despite this, several companies Digital News Asia (DNA) reached out to, notably multinational corporations (MNCs), did have some advice for workers in this region, although one local company we spoke to said it was not possible to practise WFH when it comes to the business it was in.
Kenneth Ho (pic), human resources director at IBM Malaysia, said there are two key aspects in its WFH program: The first is Work-At-Home, while the second is the Mobility program – the latter covering employees who are typically customer-facing, constantly on the move and spend a majority of time away from the office.
Ho said its IBM Global Work/Life Survey found that IBM's focus on work-life integration is one of the primary reasons why IBM employees work for and remain with the company.
“They shared that balancing their responsibilities for work, family, education and other commitments is becoming increasingly difficult under traditional work schedules, and that their ability to address work and family through the flexibility of defining our ‘work-day’ is a critical factor in their decision to stay with IBM.”
Similarly at Microsoft, employees reported improved productivity levels and gained satisfaction from their jobs.
Leigh Wong, head of communications at Microsoft Malaysia, noted that when it rolled out its ‘New World of Work’ office design concept in Singapore, the results of an internal employee survey found 54% reporting an increase in productivity levels.
The New World of Work office is a concept where no one has assigned desks and there are no private offices for managers. Employees can work anywhere in the office by using a PC, handset, webcam or smartphone.
“Forty-nine percent confirmed they collaborate more with their colleagues and 77% reported an improvement in their working environment over the previous one,” Wong said.
“A study commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Vanson Bourne shows that the impact of flexible working goes far beyond employee satisfaction: 73% of surveyed workers think their lives would improve if they could work more flexibly. And 40% of employees said the option of flexible work would influence their decision to accept a new job,” he added.
Wireless company DiGi Telecommunications established a mobile working policy called '[email protected]' in 2009, giving employees the flexibility to work remotely, subject to some broad guidelines.
Apart from a few roles which aren’t naturally mobile in nature (for example, customer service, network, retail, and core support services, to name a few), this policy is open to all employees, said a DiGi spokesman.
Where WFH works
According to recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, WFH is most conducive for independent or individual contributors to an organization.
Sally Raj (pic), country manager, Robert Walters Malaysia, said there are some roles that do not require working in a team, such as IT support functions or technical support, which can be handled remotely.
“This also works for administrative support work such as contract management, proposal writing or editorial work,” she told DNA in an interview. “Working from home is made easier these days with the advancement of cloud computing.”
One of the main arguments against Mayer’s move to axe Yahoo’s WFH program was that it would bring unhappiness, thereby affecting productivity, to those already used to the WFH concept.
Raj said that Robert Walters agreed that working from home can improve productivity and can also mean fewer office interruptions, which allows employers to be more focused.
“However, working from home is not as conducive for innovation as critical face-to-face interaction with colleagues is cut off, which means fewer brainstorming sessions or idea generation opportunities,” she said.
She added that working from home promotes work-life balance, particularly for employees with young kids or elderly relatives to look after. For some companies, it can also help with budget management. On the flip side, the cons include the lack of loyalty to the organization.
“Employees not physically in the office might not feel a sense of belonging and the absence of a team environment will also cut down social interaction,” Raj (pic) explained. “Professionals working from home may also not be sensitive to changes in the company due to the lack of face-to-face communication.”
Local technology solutions provider Vitrox Technologies said generally speaking, it does not allow WFH and it would only consider such situations on a case-by-case basis for reasons such as health or family issues.
Chu Jenn Weng, president and CEO of Vitrox, said his company does not have a work-life balance policy per se, but it makes the company a “second home” through various initiatives and activities.
“Our business is one that cannot implement WFH due to our job functions,” he told DNA. “WFH can only be implemented on a case-by-case basis. Also, I believe it’s hard to implement WFH in our current Malaysian culture as the benefits are only derived when everyone works professionally.”
Guidelines and best practices
Despite all the advantages which WFH concepts bring to the table, there need to be guidelines for companies to ensure that there will be minimal disruption should the policy be abused.
Raj said a company needs to set strict guidelines and parameters on the dos and don’ts. “There is also the need for WFH employees to regroup weekly or once in two weeks in the office to ensure everyone is informed of the latest development and policies.
“To prevent isolation from the rest of the business when working from home, always keep lines of communication between managers and co-workers open,” she pointed out.
IBM’s Ho said that while it makes perfect sense, flexible work arrangements may be a luxury to some businesses. However, the same values -- trust, responsibility and respect – should guide how management and employees manage their relationships.
At DiGi, managers have some latitude on how they govern WFH within their teams, with the clear understanding that performance and delivery of work are prioritised.
Additionally, employees are expected to be available for face-to-face discussions and meetings with colleagues whenever needed, ensure they are always contactable online and offline, and as far as possible, proactively plan their time away from the office with their managers and team members.
Over and above everything, it is broadly understood that WFH is a privilege, not a right – and hence subject to rules and guidelines, said the DiGi spokesman.
Microsoft’s Wong (pic) recommends that companies discuss working styles upfront, especially with their manager and work-group team members. On top of this, it’s important to keep good communication whether through online chats, phone calls or email, as the key to successful flexible working is good communications.
“Those who work remotely will need to be open and transparent about their whereabouts, what they are doing and where they will be and make sure they have physical meetings regularly and co-ordinate when they will spend time at the office together,” he said.
In terms of technology, Renata Janini Dohmen, Asia Pacific human resources leader for Avaya, said that companies should look at integrated unified communications (UC) solutions and networking technologies to enable employees, customers, partners, and suppliers to communicate and collaborate at the right time and with the right information to enable tele-working and WFH policies.
“Avaya believes organizations will take video out of the boardroom as much of the attention on videoconferencing has focused on its ability to decrease travel costs,” she said.
“High-performing and mobile-enabled video collaboration solutions that are simple, scalable and are able to interoperate across multi-vendor UC and video conferencing solutions and devices will further support WFH policies.”