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Working from an office is kind of a preposterous notion, when you think about it

I came across an interesting article about Dell the other day; essentially, by 2020, they want half of their workforce to be working remotely.(Right now it’s about 20 percent.) The shift to the current 20 percent has saved Dell, by its own estimates, about $14 million. Cue their VP of Corporate Responsibility:

“We had a lot of greenhouse gas emissions reduced. It was about 6,735 metric tons of CO2 last year. These are estimates. There’s no perfect algorithm to be able to measure exactly, but it’s a lot,” said Thompson.

That’s an environmental reason, which often doesn’t come into these discussions. It’s typically a series of different arguments, most of which are detailed in this Fast Company post. Basically, bosses (especially old-school bosses) are worried that people not in the office aren’t actually doing work (I think that was a double negative; what I mean is working at home = slacking off in the eyes of many). As a result of that conventional attitude, only 6.6 percent of American employees work exclusively from home; the rest work part-or-full-time at an office.

There are a lot of basically outdated notions in American life structure, and the office idea is one of them, along with continuing to base our school year on agricultural cycles, and/or convincing women they need to be pregnant by 26 based on data from the 1800s.

Before I dive in, let’s start with this: obviously, there are certain jobs one must report to (for example, construction or television production). Those require you to be on site and interacting with something physical. Same with being a ticket-taker at a sporting event, or an usher, or whatever. Obviously this doesn’t apply to every job, ever. I’m mostly talking about white-collar-type jobs.

I’ve worked in about nine different office jobs at this point in my life. I can think of one — television production job — where I needed to be there on the regular. (I was also an elementary school teacher for a bit, and clearly that’s a job where you need to be physically there on a daily basis.) The biggest argument I could see for working exclusively from an office is the notion of team formulation, teamwork, etc. That’s all well and good, but … virtual teams are actually quite effective (also see here and here), and people frequently work better when more relaxed, or closer to key resources in their life (i.e. their children’s schools, their older family members, etc.) The environmental concerns were noted above by Dell’s VP. Public transportation isn’t always great in the U.S. — often it doesn’t connect areas where people live and areas where people work — which can lead to epic commutes. If a person is coming in after 1 hour on buses/trains, how effective are they from the jump?

The Mayer story was probably the biggest pop culture reference to working from home in the past year. It’s all kind of overblown. The idea that people won’t work if they’re home — yes, it’s true to an extent. They might go interact with neighbors or grab coffee or something. It’s not completely nose to the grindstone. But you know what? That’s not the point of life anyway. We’ve all heard the argument that, on one’s deathbed, no one is talking about the Excel files they didn’t get around to. People care about friends, family, and experiences. We’re entering a period of human history — hell, we’re already in a period of human history — where so many things exist to make the work easier. Now, yes, at the same time the work has grown more complex (more markets, more potential partners, more diversification), but automation and process are key for many. What I’m saying is, let’s say someone works from home and they’re really working eight hours instead of 10 that someone in office might be. Does it make a difference? Are those 2 hours, off that one employee, going to shift the fortunes of said company? I would highly doubt it, even if the employee is in a fairly responsibility-laden role. So why not give them a chance to break apart from work once in a while, maybe see a friend, be closer to their kids’ schools?

Child care is rising. Kids are coming out of college with $30K in debt. If you get a job grinding for $70K — by no means a probability right now — and end up settling down and having kids in your late 20s/early 30s (generalized American white-collar pattern), you’re probably still eating it (debt/cost-wise) into your 40s. But if we let more people work from home, or base themselves where they want to and travel periodically to an HQ (everyone in business travels anyway, it seems), we could help with child care, we could help with family interaction, we could help with environment, we could help with business bottom line costs (let’s say a business frees up 60 employees, representing one floor of their building, and then leases that floor out to a smaller business, eh?), and … we’re not doing this just because we want people to work in teams, which they could do via Google, GoToMeeting, EverNote, Skype, and e-mail anyway? Seems dumb.

This article makes another point: the prevailing business culture right now, in general, is that employees need to be online and accessible pretty much universally. If that’s the case, why should it matter if a larger percentage of the workforce is at home?

Hell, millennials don’t want to be in cubes anyway.

I realize this is never going to happen — in all likelihood, the percentages of completely in-office employees will remain around 90. At best, companies might offer a few work-from-home perks, much like vacation (say, two total weeks of working from home, or something along those lines). But if the best argument against it is, “Well, I’m not sure they’re really working,” well, fire them if they aren’t. That’s a pretty good counter. If the second-best argument is, “Well, we need to build a culture,” well, most places don’t care drastically about personnel as relates to performance anyway, and if you want to build a culture, do it through outside-of-work events and team incentives. (That is doable.) If your third argument is “People need to interact,” well, yes, humans need interaction … but check out how many people in your organization send e-mails to people who sit within 50 feet of them on an hourly basis. I bet it’s fairly staggering, percentage-wise. People claim to value interaction, but they don’t always actually value it. Think about the bottom line, the contentedness of your employees, etc. It could actually be a viable business strategy to keep your middle ranks fat, happy, and close to what they value. It’s just a shame most people would view an idea like this as stupid, because it does have potential value to both the individual and the org.

Ted Bauer

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