Who really works from home, or not from home, as the case may be

There’s a certain narrative surrounding “telecommuting” that goes like this: moms who want a better work-life balance — which is code for “want to work less” — negotiate to work from home. Given that it’s a negotiation, the prevailing wisdom is that they should give up something: pay, prestige, advancement opportunities, etc. They also need to acknowledge that working from home is an un-serious thing to do. And when things need to get serious (like at Yahoo) a way to show you’re serious is that management will bring everyone back in the office.

But what if there are some major flaws with this narrative? That’s the headline coming out of a new survey done by Cali Yost’s Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, Inc. group. She polled 556 people who were employed full time. Almost a third (31 percent) did most of their work away from their employer’s location. That means it was done somewhere else: home, coffee shops, a business center, on the road, at multiple clients’ offices, etc. Of these remote workers, 71 percent were men. They were no more likely to be parents than not parents.

In other words, the majority of “remote workers” — the more inclusive term for this concept of not working on your employer’s site daily — are not moms working from home.

I asked Cali about this, and she explained that “We were trying to clarify the entrenched disconnect between the way work is actually happening for [many] employees (e.g. NOT at their employer’s site) today, and the way we still think of ‘work’–everyone goes to the same physical space everyday at the same time.”

“This disconnect is the reason leaders still talk about telework as a ‘program’, ‘policy’ or ‘perk’ used by small, isolated demographics within the organization (women, moms, Gen-Y) , rather than what it has evolved into, which is a fundamental part of many organizations’ operating model.  But that doesn’t mean the culture has adapted and caught up to the reality. In many, if not most cases, it hasn’t — again because of this disconnect.”

With modern communication technology, a lot of work really can be done anywhere. If you think about it, a CEO checking his work email at night is technically “working from home” — but that’s not the image that comes to mind when people think of that phrase. Indeed, I suspect Yahoo isn’t against remote work in the sense that people’s smartphones don’t shut down when they leave the office for the evening. It’s OK to work from home at 9 p.m., just not at 10 a.m. But then that becomes a different question of how can you have people in one physical location at certain core hours. It’s not about remote work being bad on its own.

For many businesses, the reality on the ground is that it doesn’t matter if remote work is more or less productive, innovative, flexible, or anything else. It just is. So if you do want to work “from home” sometimes (or anywhere else)? It might be better to keep the phrase “at home” out of it completely. That phrase winds up being more gendered and “parented” than remote work actually is. Better to try to negotiate deliverables coupled with flexibility on work location and hours. That may be perceived in an entirely different category.


12 thoughts on “Who really works from home, or not from home, as the case may be

  1. I work for a small business (13 employees) and although we are pretty flexible in some areas (such as attire) we are less flexible in others (work hours and working remotely).

    Recently, I’ve been thinking about approaching my boss with a more flexible schedule or the ability to work remotely. I struggle with finding reasons why that would benefit him. Perhaps, it is that disconnect. Almost all of the work I do, can be done anywhere as long as I have a laptop and internet access.

    I do have a co-worker who just recently returned from maternity leave who will work from home 3 times per week. So, perhaps, this is a great step forward — someone who can exemplify the fact that yes indeed, it’s possible to effectively work from home.

    1. @Jennifer- yes, you’re wise to approach it in terms of his business benefit. One benefit is that you might work more. You could ask for 1-2x week from home (but not Friday and Monday! people seem to think that’s about vacation). Then demonstrably make that your super-productive day. Propose it as a trial run, and then have all your good news and big wins happen on that telecommuting day.

      1. You’re right, the two times I have worked from home, I did work more! So, great points!! I also suppose that communication will play a larger role if I work remotely to ensure that the boss knows that I am working as I should when at home.

  2. Both #2 and I have partners who telecommute. Most of the people at DH’s firm telecommute– and they’re all men (except the women administrative staff who work on site!)
    DH’s company initially didn’t want to hire another telecommuter for the position, but there’s no way we’re moving to the East coast, and we can afford to be picky. Eventually they gave up on trying to hire someone locally and interviewed DH.
    Telecommuting is a good way to solve that dual-career problem, and when it’s the husband who is the tech person, it makes sense for him to be the one who telecommutes. Of course, telecommuting partial weeks is a good way to solve the commute time problem too, which is why we know folks on the coasts who work at home 2-3 days of the week and are in the office the remainder.

    1. @NicoleandMaggie – re the administrative staff working there…yep. Cali found that women were more likely than men to work onsite, and work in cubes or open plan offices than private offices. Women seem to be the ones putting in the actual face time.

      The whole Yahoo thing to me seemed to miss the idea that one can have a balance between working with people in person and working virtually. Yes, it’s important to be face to face sometimes. But 5 days a week is probably overkill. People manage to work with people in other offices despite not seeing each other daily. You can probably capture various supposed innovation benefits by seeing each other twice a week.

  3. I think that the main benefit of not working remotely is having everyone in the same place at the same time. If you have a question, it’s so much quicker and easier to go and have a face-to-face conversation with that person than play the voice mail/e-mail game. If you don’t really need to have that face to face time or if you have regularly scheduled meetings (and it’s not convenient to communicate in between) then it seems like that would matter a lot less.

    1. Companies that have a culture of remote work usually have a technological solution to this, and from what I’ve seen, it is usually some sort of chat functionality on the computer. In fact, many companies with multiple locations use the same technology.
      My company’s policy AGAINST remote work is one reason I’ve been unable to make the new location further from my home work out. I can “informally” work from home from time to time, but I can’t make it part of my official schedule, which makes it so that telework is only something I can use occasionally.

  4. I write this comment from a coffee shop. As a small business owner and mother of two young children working remotely has been my saviour. When the children are sick or some other household drama (like waiting for the plumber to fix the blocked shower) the ability to keep working out of the office has helped avoid backlog, service my clients and often avoid too much stress. There are days when working at home does not work – particularly if the housework is a distraction.
    Sometimes the office is frankly boring and being out and about change re focus the brain. This morning the idea of the office was bumming me out, but I have achieved a lot over my coffee.
    For me, I make it known to my clients’ that the office may not always be attended and if they want to see me then appointments are the best bet. In these days of work pressure most of my clients’ appreciate telephone calls after hours or email responses when they (and me) are usually at home).
    For me flexibility is the key, and being able to adapt to the unexpected is essential.

    1. @Melanie – I worked in the library last night. Likewise, it’s about change of scenery, plus in my case the kids were being loud. If I was going to get anything done, I needed to get out of there. I rarely go to the library during the day, though, since I can’t really do phone calls there.

  5. Wondering if the group has any advice around approaching flexible work arrangements during the interview process. Because my current employer is not willing to offer that, it is one of the top reasons driving my job search…and yet I really struggle with how best to approach the conversation prior to proving my reliability and productivity.

    1. @Sally – that’s a great question. With jobs, the absolute most leverage you will ever have is after someone has offered you a job, but before you accept. So that’s certainly the time to negotiate for anything, including flexibility. (I guess you also have a lot of leverage when you have a job offer from a competing firm in hand, too. But that’s a different matter!) You can also ask questions as you’re exploring an employer. If people offer up details on employees’ flexible work arrangements without you even asking, that’s probably a good sign. You could get at that by asking what people’s daily schedules generally look like, and asking the interviewer about what his/her schedule looks like. Ask how they handled a recent snow day (not sure where you live). If the person says “oh, we have everyone set up so they can work from anywhere” — also a good sign.

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