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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Desk vs couch

As Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer orders her employees back into the office, it’s time to ask if working from home really works

I am writing this column from my living-room sofa, my feet perched on the ottoman opposite. In the next room, I can hear the electrician fixing the lights that fused this morning. Delicious cooking smells are wafting from the kitchen. And the TV is on in the den, the sound muted, so that I can pop in once in a while and check on the score.

Marissa Mayer would so not be impressed.

In case you have missed all the hoo-haa, Mayer, the newly-minted Yahoo CEO created a bit of a storm when she sent out a memo that employees could no longer work from home but had to clock in at their offices. Cue, much outrage and indignation, not just from Yahoo employees – which was understandable given that they would now have to get out of their pyjamas and actually brush their hair before settling down before their computer screens – but from such entrepreneurs as Sir Richard Branson who criticised Mayer’s directive, saying it seemed a ‘backward step’ in an age where remote working is easier and more effective than ever. Branson, who prides himself on never having worked out of an office, said, “Working life isn’t 9-5 any more. The world is connected. Companies that do not embrace this are missing a trick.”

In Mayer’s defence, she issued the memo only after a diligent check of the Yahoo’s VPN (Virtual Private Network) system that revealed that some employees who worked from home were not logging in as much as they should have. But instead of laying off the slackers, she issued an one-solution-fits-all diktat, asking Yahoo’s workforce to either punch in or punch out forever.

Mayer has since been criticised for letting down the sisterhood, because working flexible hours at home is the best-case solution for mothers of young kids. And the betrayal seems even harder to bear because Mayer had seemed like such a poster child for the ‘women can have it all’ school of thought. Hired as Yahoo CEO when she was six months pregnant, she came back to work when her baby was just two weeks old; a bit of a blow to women who have campaigned long and hard for adequate maternity leave. It didn’t help that – unlike other Yahoo working moms who will have to drop their kids off at day care – Mayer had a nursery built for her infant son right next to her office at her own expense. If only every woman could be so lucky...not to mention, rich.

But of course, it’s not just women (or women with children) who prefer working out of the home. Given a choice many men would like to do that as well. And the benefits – no matter what your sex – are obvious. You save on commuting time; you don’t spend on transport; you can work flexible hours. That said, you do miss out on some things that only a work environment can provide. Bouncing ideas off colleagues; working in a creative environment; benefitting from a professional workspace free of distractions.

So, what is better? Working out of home? Or putting in long hours in an office? Having done both at different times in my life, I have decided that there’s no golden rule that works for everyone.

I really don’t buy the argument that people who work out of home are easily distracted – by kids running around, day-time television, the thought of fixing a quick snack – and indulge in too much time-wasting. I have seen enough desk-slaves who spend an obscene amount of time playing Solitaire or surfing the Net at the office to buy that. The bottom-line is: if you are the kind of person who likes to faff around and waste time, you will do that, whether you are ensconced on your sofa or behind an office desk. On the other hand, if you are motivated and driven, you will concentrate on your job, no matter where you are.

And who can deny that it is easier to concentrate behind closed doors at home rather than in a noisy office. As someone who learnt to write and edit in a noisy, open-plan newsroom, which was characterised by much yelling and screaming as deadlines drew nearer, it is an unaccountable luxury to be able to work in quiet solitude where you can actually hear yourself think. So yes, working alone does make sense when you are writing or doing something vaguely creative.

But that is not necessarily the case when you are in a marketing or sales job when you need to brainstorm with other members of your team, push one another to think harder, and get inspired by what the other person says. Even such creative fields as advertising and publishing benefit from a work force that has some face-time with one another, and no amount of tele-conferencing and Skype can be a good substitute. As British Vogue editor Alexandra Schulman, who believes in ‘the collective creativity of an office’, says, “The daily download of chatter within the office feeds into what we produce in an incalculable way. Having half the staff sitting at home, fiddling around on a search engine from the kitchen or pasting up mood boards from the sofa does not replicate that.”

Or, as they would say at Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo, “Back to the water cooler, everyone!”


Sadia said...

well written Seema mam.. :)

Sadia said...

well written Seema mam.. :)

Saket Suryesh said...

A very well written and timely article. Well, yahoo CEO isn't the only one to have done that, and well, it is not a women thing. This is a wrong presumption that men do not miss kids growing up while they are out in the office.