Consumer Corner: The call of the cubicle

By MICHELLE GROENKE  |  March 17, 2013 at 12:38 AM
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CHICAGO, March 17 (UPI) -- Men and women who prefer working from home are feeling the heat as the decision by U.S. Internet giant Yahoo to ban telecommuting focuses renewed attention on the work-at-home culture.

One-third of U.S. workers who are not self-employed say they spend time during normal business hours working from home, a recent Harris poll found.

Does it matter where someone works, as long as the work as the work gets done? While 9-in-10 American workers agree working from home provides flexibility, more than a third of those surveyed say working from home hurts productivity.

The image of telecommuting employees taking conference calls in their pajamas with one eye on the computer screen and the other on a daytime talk show is unfair, workers say, despite concerns voiced at Yahoo that some employees weren't even logging into the system on days they were working at home.

The online survey of 2,219 adults, conducted Feb. 28-March 4, found 34 percent of people work from home at least occasionally. Nine percent work from home primarily or exclusively and another 8 percent spend about half their time working from home. Two-thirds (66 percent) do not work from home at all.

Of those who work from home, 40 percent are between the ages of 18 to 34. While parents of children under the age of 18 are more likely to work from home than those without kids, (41 percent versus 31 percent, men are more likely to work from home than women (37 percent versus 31 percent).

While 64 percent of those surveyed said working from home increases productivity and work output, 35 percent said working from home hurts speed and work quality.

What are employees sacrificing by being out of the office? It's not just face time with the boss, it's the elevator platitudes, conversations around the water cooler and cubicle chit-chat with co-workers that are often cited as a waste of time but actually result in closer working relationships, collaboration and creativity, supporters of Yahoo's recent policy change say.

While 85 percent of workers say telecommuting enables employees to balance work and family needs, 84 percent agree working together in an office setting adds to team camaraderie. Harris Interactive said the survey found 83 percent of workers agree some of the best ideas and decisions can result from impromptu, in-person meetings and conversations.

The survey said 83 percent of workers see telecommuting as a significant job perk and 61 percent said the option to telecommute has or would have an impact on their decision to take or stay at a job.

Melissa Thomas-Hunt, associate professor of behavior research at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, says it appears Yahoo's work at home arrangements needed to be restructured because they no longer met the needs of the business. "A more targeted approach, however, might have achieved the same outcomes of increased productivity and collaboration without inciting the backlash," Hunt told United Press International.

Thomas-Hunt said the new policy issued by Yahoo Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer may cause more companies to examine their work flexibility policies, but this examination may actually lead to more flexible policies as organizations observe the backlash brought on by Yahoo's recent actions.

"Flexibility in work arrangements is a societal issue," Thomas-Hunt said. "We need parents and elder-caregivers who can be present in their family members lives. Our communities also benefit from having capable individuals who are able to direct energy into schools, not for profits and local activities. None of this can be done if employees spend all their time at work or commuting to and from work."

While there may be some people who abuse the privilege of working from home, Thomas-Hunt says the reality is most employees aren't trying to get one over on the company. "They usually make up more than the time spent away from their work by working early in the morning and late at night," she said.

Will Yahoo's new policy make it harder to attract and retain top talent? Thomas-Hunt says a revitalized Yahoo may offset any perceived constraints of the ban. "If Mayer is able to revitalize Yahoo's culture and create a coveted work environment with interesting work, then the ban on working at home may not discourage top talent," she said.

A survey of 120 human resource executives by outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found 80 percent of the companies currently offer some form of telecommuting option. Of those companies, 97 percent said they have no plan to eliminate that benefit.

"If a company is having success with its telecommuting program, it is unlikely to will pull the plug on it simply because Yahoo did," John Challenger, chief executive officer of the Chicago-based firm, said in a statement. "It is just as unlikely that a company will not implement telecommuting because Yahoo did not have success with it. No two companies are the same, so each must evaluate policies such as telecommuting based on how it will affect its customers, employees and bottom line,."

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