The Productivity Of Working Where We Want

Another day, another company completely undercutting itself by gutting remote work policies. This time it’s IBM of all companies.

This is particularly surprising because IBM has been a pioneer of the remote work article and one of the first to experience tremendous benefits associated with saving space and cost, as the same QZ article notes:

At IBM, which has embraced remote work for decades, a relatively large proportion of employees work outside of central hubs. As early as the 1980s, the company had installed “remote terminals” in several employees’ homes. And by 2009, when remote work was still, for most, a novelty, 40% of IBM’s 386,000 global employees already worked at home (the company noted that it had reduced its office space by 78 million square feet and saved about $100 million in the US annually as a result).

In a patronizing video announcement of the new policy IBM chief marketing officer Michelle Peluso tried to put a positive spin on disrupting the lives of families with infants and toddlers, uprooting the lives of people by effectively forcing them to move or find another job and causing a chilling effect within IBM by alienating excellent talent that needed flexible schedules. One employee even anonymously speculated that this was a backhanded way to downsize which, if true, is cowardly at best.

Let’s assume for the purposes of this blog post that this isn’t a pseudo-downsizing attempt or an attempt to “clean house” (remember how well that worked with Yahoo?). It’s altogether not an uncommon stereotype that people only work at their optimal 100% levels when they’re working shoulder to shoulder in an office. It’s also complete bunk.

I particularly enjoy working at home, despite being unmarried and having no dependents or children, and someone who could easily move if needed. So what’s my excuse? I think I’ve figured out why most people prefer their own work environments and it has nothing to do with me being a lazy, whinging Millennial.

I’ve worked from home ever since I started doing this thing I’ve managed to turn into a business, and I quickly found that I preferred it that way. Aside from my on-site work or in-person tutorials for customers I’ve only ever worked in an office co-op for one day and it produced the shittiest work I’ve ever done in my career. It was a nice floor and I had an office but people were constantly walking by, milling around, talking with each other and on their phones and occasionally stopping in to tell me something.

As a result my work was full of mistakes and typos because I was not in my natural environment. I was in this alien environment full of distractions and external factors that kept drawing my attention elsewhere. Even when I’m under an extremely tight deadline at home I can at least feel like I’m working on my schedule and on my terms, in my natural work environment. No other office colleagues knocking my door to ask if I need something, nobody interrupting me in the middle of a phone call and no mad rush to the snack room whenever somebody brought in a leftover cake causing everybody to stampede loudly to grab a piece.

So for me – and I expect a lot of other people – it’s an issue of quality time. It’s an issue of being able to sit comfortably in a work environment where you can actually be productive. This isn’t to say that people can’t be product in different environments; if that were true I’d never be able to get any work done at all. This also shouldn’t suggest that there isn’t any value to in person meetings or group collaborations.

It shouldn’t even suggest that there aren’t people for whom an office setting is an optimal environment which is their natural habitat. I have a friend who works freelance but specifically pays to rent office space because she would go crazy otherwise. She finds it incomprehensible that I’m as productive as I am at home, and I can’t comprehend being able to work as efficiently as she does at an office. It’s not a one size fits all solution.

My point is that as a company you should be incentivizing people to work from where they can work comfortably, productively and happily. As a company, when you gut work remote policies you are in many cases agreeing to produce inferior work on behalf of your employees. Don’t take my word for it; studies have found that working remotely can improve productivity. Whether people are most comfortable working from home, or the office, or on the roof or on the wing of a plane you should be making this happen for your sake and theirs.

The article also notes that working from home decreases stress. IBM of all companies should know this; the built a huge amount of their success on it early on. Working at home means less commuting, which means more time working. It means less having to rush out of the office to pick up a sick child from school and it means being able to just work at your own inconvenience sometimes.

I’m also going to go out on a limb and suggest that people may be able to function better without having their lives upended, having to spend extra money on nannies or caretakers for infants, or having to move to entirely new neighborhoods and leave friends and family behind. Just a thought.

Lastly, sorry, employers, but you’re never going to be able to stop people from getting into eBay bidding wars if they’re in the office where you can monitor their browsing history. Life finds a way.