Working remotely has long been a sort of utopian vision of employment. And today, with computers and smartphones able to connect us, we can easily escape arduous commutes and cramped offices and get jobs done from the comfort of the couch or even the beach.
Yet the idea has not caught fire as many had thought it would since digital communication began to pervade life. While statistics show working from home is on the rise, it doesn’t seem to match the pace of technological evolution. U.S. employees who worked remotely at least one day each week increased to 9.5 percent in 2010, from 7 percent in 1997, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
This week, the ranks of remote workers got smaller, when tech giant Yahoo told employees their telecommuting days are over, according to a leaked memo.
“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” said the memo. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”
The real question seems to be: Considering the technological tools available today — instant messaging, e-mail, Skype, Facetime, Hangouts — why is working from home considered an “alternative”?
Joseph M. Pastore, a professor at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York, says it’s nearly impossible to supplant the basic unit of communication: the conversation. “There’s so much about what we do … [that’s] conversational and interactive,” he said.
And some people work better around others. But statistics seem to be on telecommuting’s side. The 2012 National Study of Employers notes that 63 percent of companies allow — though not necessarily encourage — at least some employees to work a portion of their time remotely. That’s up from 34 percent in 2005.
But while an occasional day at home is fine, being in the office is usually more productive.
The efficacy of working remotely is also job-dependent. For example, customer service agents spend almost all their time on the phone and in front of a computer, rarely needing face-to-face interaction. But until retail stores are fundamentally redesigned, the sales staff needs to be on the floor.
Or, as Pastore puts it: “The mere fact you’re saving a little money and time (by employees staying home) won’t supplant the fact you’re not getting the job done.”