I have blogged about the joys of working at home, but it’s time to revisit this issue. This work arrangement has become the topic of considerable discussion now that Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer, has told all her employees to report to the office. Further piquing my interest was a research study that I found this week in which economists compared the productivity of workers toiling at the office versus those working at home.
Let’s look at the research (PDF) first. The economists, at Stanford and Beijing Universities, studied the output of call-center workers employed by a Chinese travel agency. The workers were randomly assigned to work either at home or in the office for nine months. Those working at home performed 13 percent better than those in the office, partly as a result of putting in more minutes per shift (a 9 percent difference) and partly as a result of making more calls per minute (a 4 percent difference).
But consider the reasons that Marissa Mayer cited for her decision to call the 200 work-at-home employees back to the office. According to The New York Times, “A memo explaining the policy change, from the company’s human resources department, says face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more collaborative culture.” Having come from Google, where this culture was the norm, Mayer decided that the change in work rules was needed as part of an overhaul that would bring Yahoo back from its long decline.
I think her reasoning makes sense, despite the findings of the economists. The Chinese call-center workers have no need for communication or collaboration amongst themselves. They communicate with the people who telephone them. They can work well—in fact, better—in the isolation of their home offices than in a noisy call center. The Yahoo workers, on the other hand, are doing the kind of collaborative work that causes the high-tech industry to cluster in places such as the Silicon Valley and the Boston suburbs. The famous “idea factory” at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, where so much of our present technology was developed in the 1960s, was laid out with a long corridor that encouraged engineers and technicians from different disciplines to rub shoulders and trade ideas as they made their way to and from the cafeteria.
The photo below was actually shot at Allied Chemical in 1967, and although it often is mistakenly identified as showing Bell Labs in 1966, it gives an idea of the same architectural thinking at work.
If the world were really growing “flatter,” in the sense that Thomas Friedman describes, there would be no need for Silicon Valleys. We all could work at home. But note that many of the jobs that can be done at home—and call-center work is an excellent example—have been moved overseas to lower-paid workers. By contrast, many of the jobs that will remain in the United States will need to be the kind of collaborative work that is much harder to do at home. For example, one of the reasons that manufacturing is coming back to the United States is that creative production that stays one step ahead of the competition demands that engineers and technicians work close to the factory floor—in close contact with its workers and machines—rather than send specifications to a plant across the ocean.
Besides the creativity that teamwork can foster, another factor that is driving collaborative work is the need to hold down costs. Even in industries that require hands-on work that can’t be done at home, workers are becoming more collaborative so that highly-paid specialists can focus on the tasks that require their level of skill and knowledge. For example, in the health-care field, physicians work in collaboration with physician assistants and nurse practitioners, to whom they can hand off various tasks, and nurses do the same with aides and orderlies. In other industries, a similar cost-cutting relationship exists between engineers and technicians, between accountants and bookkeepers, and between teachers and classroom aides.
What does this mean for your career? It suggests that work-at-home arrangements will be harder to obtain if you want to work in the kinds of highly creative and collaborative jobs that pay well and are not likely to be offshored. If you want to work at home, be sure to ask yourself why what you’re planning to do can’t be done by someone overseas.
There certainly are creative jobs—often niche jobs—that are not collaborative, can be done at home, and would be hard to offshore. For example, think of an editorial cartoonist, who needs to be immersed in the American political and popular culture. Or think of an advice columnist, who needs to be attuned to the shifting mores of our society. For jobs that do require collaboration, advances in technology such as Skype make it increasingly possible to simulate face-to-face collaboration from one’s home.
But the trend in America’s economy is toward on-site, collaborative work. Technology will allow more flexibility in our work schedules, with some work still possible at home, but much of the work in the best jobs will be in the office.