Everybody has their own opinion on which practices are best for a thriving business, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is no one single way of running a successful company – if there was, we’d all be doing it. Even so, there’s one issue that seems to cause particularly harsh debate amongst employers: working from home.
These days, more and more companies seem to be adopting WFH policies on some level or another. Some places will offer a limited number of WFH days a month, others will grant them on a case-by-case basis, and many allow their employees as much remote working time as they want or need.
And yet, there have been some high profile incidents of companies banning working from home entirely. In 2013, for example, the chief of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, changed her company’s policy so that staff always had to be in office during working hours. “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices,” she announced in a memo.
This decision incited backlash from employees, many of whom claimed they worked better from home. And there are plenty of business owners who would concur with them.
Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic (the company behind WordPress.com, Jetpack and WooCommerce), gave a TEDtalk at the start of this year on the benefits of what he calls “distributed” working – otherwise known as working remotely.
“We’re coming up on over 800 employees, and they live everywhere … Whether they are in RVs or travelling through Airbnbs, they are in new places every day, week or month. As long as they can find good Wi-Fi, we don’t care where they are,” he said.
The main benefit for employees, he explained, is that everyone can have a level of autonomy that simply isn’t possible in an office environment.
“Everyone can have a corner office, their windows, the food they want to eat, you can choose when there’s music and when there’s silence,” he said. “You can choose what temperature the room should be. You can save the time you’d spend commuting and put it into things that are important to you.”
And, on the employer’s side, it means that you never have to compromise when recruiting talent because they’re too far away, or have a complicated schedule, or simply don’t want to give up the option of WFH in their existing role.
“In Silicon Valley, the big tech companies fish from essentially the same small pond or bay. A distributed company can fish from the entire ocean,” Mullenweg said. “Instead of hiring someone who grew up in Japan but lives in California, you can gain someone who lives, works, wakes up and goes to sleep wherever they are in the world. They bring a different understanding of that culture and a different lived experience.”
And Mullenweg’s claims are backed up by solid research, too.
A two-year-long study conducted by Stanford found that, in the case of Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, forcing employees to work from home actually improved their performance.
“Call center employees who volunteered to WFH were randomly assigned either to work from home or in the office for nine months,” the study explains. “Home working led to a 13% performance increase, of which 9% was from working more minutes per shift (fewer breaks and sick days) and 4% from more calls per minute (attributed to a quieter and more convenient working environment). Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction, and their attrition rate halved, but their promotion rate conditional on performance fell.”
Despite the drop in promotion rate, the company decided to extend the option to work from home to all of their employees. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to even greater benefits.
“Due to the success of the experiment, Ctrip rolled out the option to WFH to the whole firm and allowed the experimental employees to reselect between the home and office. Interestingly, over half of them switched, which led to the gains from WFH almost doubling to 22%.”
One of the key factors leading to increased success here seems to be whether or not the employees chose to work from home. Performance increased either way, but it increased much more noticeably when staff could decide which sort of work environment suited them best.
Mullenweg concedes that there are certain standards and rules that must be put in place for remote jobs to function smoothly – but they’re easily doable for any company worth its salt. Establishing online communication between staff is a must-do, as is getting workers into the good practice of self-monitoring and tracking everything they’ve done (or need to do). That way, they can be managed wherever they are, and can prove that they are actually doing work rather than slacking off.
Most importantly, Mullenweg notes that his employees are never totally isolated, and are always given the opportunity to meet their coworkers at annual events. “Once a year we do a grand meet-up where the entire company comes together for a week. It’s half-work, half-play,” he explains.
So, yes: working from home is good for business – provided that remote staff are given the same amount of care and attention that in-office workers would be.