Is Working from Home a Scam?

CaptureFirst it was Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer in February this year. Now it’s Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman.

They’ve banned working from home.

I used to love working from home. A full day of total concentration. No interruptions. No pointless meetings. No fire extinguisher training. They were often the most tiring days I did. I worked constantly for 8 hours or so. No commute. No nonsense. You get a real feel for your natural rhythms. My rhythm is to get up and then mess round for a few hours – cycle, eat, email. Small stuff. Then work like a maniac from about noon till 8pm. That’s what I do without outside interference.  

When working from home I used to do what I considered to be “big stuff” – real thinking time, planning, mapping things out. That kind of stuff.

I loved it.

I used to have staff who would ask to work from home as well. I was never really comfortable with saying yes. There was never a good reason. And they didn’t like me asking them to show me what they’d done with that day. The objective seemed to be to “catch up with email”. This is a poor reason to work from home.

I am not untrusting by nature but I often didn’t trust them to put a shift in, as they say.

Organisations are about teamwork. There are many, many horrible aspects to organisations but their one saving grace is that they can do teamwork. Teams produce better results more often than most individuals most of the time.  

So, I am not sure what to think about working from home, or it’s banning. I am not a cynical person and I think most people are good most of the time. But there’s something about home working that doesn’t quite sit well with me.

For those who…

…are home-based permanently that’s a different matter. Full time home office-ers I have no problem with. There is no point in commuting to the London office if you’re a combine harvester sales guy in Auchtermuchty.

My suspicion is that for most people most of the time working from home is frankly just disengagement. It’s a symptom of something else. If the work is great and the people are great and things are set up so that team effort is required and rewarded, which after all is what organisations are for, then why work from home?

Whitman said that “During this critical turnaround period, HP needs all hands on deck.”

The implication is that if you’re working from home you’re not really working. You’re not as effective as you could be.

I just have a nagging feeling this is correct.

I think there’s a utopian ideal…

…that we can all just run around telecommuting (what a stupid word) and being super effective while multi-tasking from anywhere on earth. This is almost certainly nonsense. This assumes that there is no network effect in an organisation: that it is just a sum of its employee’s individual effort. An organisation has to be more than the sum of its parts. An organisation needs team working to deliver value because the non-value adding costs of simply being an organisation are massive.

And I am afraid that a good number of people, I’m saying more than 50%, will become almost totally unproductive very quickly without the organisation wrapped around them. They’re not bad people. They’re just people.

So, I think Marissa and Meg have got it right.

What do you think? Why don’t you let me know in the box below.

12 Responses to Is Working from Home a Scam?

  1. Amanda Fairclough October 14, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    My business is based in offices at my home. I have a full time colleague who comes in during each working day. She tends to be more productive with her working days in my home/office than I am. I am much more disciplined and productive when she is in the home/office with me. Whenever I can, I go out to clients’ premises to work and find I am more productive there too, even if it’s reflective or thought intensive work and I have to find a quiet place to do it.

    None of this means I don’t get work done when I’m on my own in my home/office. It’s more the case that I am more productive when there is a buzz of productivity around me. It’s the environment and how I respond to it that matters. And home is still the place I go to relax and get away from the world, so it can be hard to have my working life encroach on that.

    So I don’t think there’s any such thing as “working from home”. I work from an office which is at my home and try to differentiate the two environments as best I can. Out of choice, I’d have a separate office building at home – maybe in the garden or detached garage. That really would be the best of both worlds…

    • Mark Nugent October 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

      I know someone who has a proper pre-fab office in the garden. I can imagine that that small separation makes all the difference in terms of allowing him to walk away at the end of the day…

  2. Robert Sloss October 14, 2013 at 11:02 am #

    I am working at home today, “catching up with email” as I have just returned from a week in South Africa and need to do this and am too tired to drive in. However, as a general rule I believe that I am more productive at home if I have a big task to do that requires concentration and only my effort, in all other situations I am much more productive working in the office as a team. Once you are in a team the interaction is important and teleconferences are not good for this, they only work for task based reporting but not idea creation and day to day bouncing off each other. I even believe that conversation round the coffee machine are important first for building the team but secondly they almost always end up with an impromptu work related discussion which can only happen in an informal session. So like a lot of modern business practices working from home is not ideal and these 2 CEOs have got it right.

    • Mark Nugent October 15, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

      Thanks Robert, under David’s “toil system” that he works under, I think you would have got a day off (or more!) for travelling to South Africa!

  3. David Campbell October 14, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    I know that I am not the most effective person – though I do have some insights into why that is. Following on from the above points, I know that the ‘working from home’ environment is just not right for me. It doesn’t feel like there is activity going on around, so I need to be generating activity, and there are too many distractions. I have the insight to know I won’t be productive working from home, so I don’t.

    I’m also very suspicious when I hear from colleagues ‘I’m working from home tomorrow’ / ‘he/she is working from home’. Unless there is a specific output (e.g. completing a tender you found out about at the last minute, and being isolated will allow you to get a good tender in on time with no office based distractions) that the working from home will deliver, then it just doesn’t wash for me. And there never seems to be a specific output.

    I suspect “I’m working from home” often means ‘I have a personal problem to resolve / i’m having a new washing machine delivered’ etc but I can avoid taking leave by saying ‘i’m working from home’. And this is in the context of our generous ‘toil’ system.

    I may be a suspicious person, but I don’t think I’m a bad person, or wrong. I’m also not a ‘manager’ – I guess we can all make our own conclusions from that!

    • Mark Nugent October 15, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

      Thanks David. I think insisting on a tangible output is key.

  4. John Hodkinson October 14, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    I believe working from home is right for some people in some instances but not for all people all of the time. Like you, Mark, I have had time working from home, while part of a larger organisation. Also like you my work did not fit into the normal 9-5 of the organisation but I did put in a lot more hours than I would have if I had been tied to the office. Much of my work would be done between 6am and 9am with a break of several hours before starting again during the mid afternoon and working until I felt I had completed the task I was involved in, to a satisfactory level for that day. I really enjoyed the freedom, the flexibility and the trust that I felt had been placed in me.

    • Mark Nugent October 15, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

      working until I felt I had completed the task I was involved in, to a satisfactory level for that day

      Yes. I think people have a certain amount to give in a day and some days it’s 10 hours and some days it’s much less. I have not yet fully mastered the art of just walking away when I’ve given what I have to give for the day.

  5. Keith Plumb October 14, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Mark,

    I think that this is horses for courses. I work from home some of the time and like yourself and John tend to work my hours to suit myself. My wife does not like me to work to late but likes asking me to do things during the day, so it always a balance.

    I take the point about team working and I spend a lot time in client offices because I am frequently part of a team.

    I do not think that I am any more productive at home than at a client’s office but I do different things. My preferred option is a combination of the two, particularly as home office working is rather lonely. Working at home is a better option if it reduces the amout of travel that I have to do.

    • Mark Nugent October 15, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      I reminded myself just the other day how lucky I am not to have to commute.

  6. Jon Atkinson October 14, 2013 at 11:25 pm #

    I have a shop so working from home is not really an option but my wife works from home on occasions. I must confess that before I met her I hadn’t encountered this & when she told me that it was quite common practice at the University that she works at my initial reaction was to categorize it with ‘having a sickie’! Indeed whilst I have seen how much more she can achieve at home without the usual work place interruptions, particularly if there is a particular project that she wants to get stuck into, I have spoken to other people ‘allegedly’ working from home at the time who are clearly not so conscientious! It seems to me that it depends on the individual & the circumstances, which I suspect could be accommodated much more easily by a smaller company / department than a large one, so Yahoo & HP may well have it right for their respective organisations.

    • Mark Nugent October 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

      Yes, as you and others have said, working for home is I think great for some people but not all and I am afraid that making this distinction openly to staff is almost certainly well outside the comfort zone of most managers.

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