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Expert Comment: Calling time on teleworking

0175 Dr Tessa Owens Thursday 7 March 2013

As Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer tells her staff to stop working from home, Dr Tessa Owens, Principal Lecturer in Business at Liverpool Hope Business Schools, takes a closer look at the issue.

Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer recently advised staff that they would be required to return to the office and that their previous practice of working from home (teleworking) must cease. Mayer defended this move by claiming that some of the best decisions are made in chance encounters within the workplace and that physical attendance at an office location was therefore essential. This decision refocuses the debate on teleworking that was heralded as the future of modern working practice and has caused disquiet amongst many business commentators.

The continuing economic crisis appears to have influenced the decision to return to more traditional ways of working. Mayer’s offer to those staff who do not want to return to exclusive office working is that they can leave the company. This appears to be a particularly aggressive stance and may therefore be part of a deliberate business strategy to reduce the number of employees at the company. In a ‘flat world’ (Friedman, 2005) Yahoo and others will be able to source cheaper labour in other countries, possibly maintaining only a core of specialist staff in the US. In more buoyant economic times organisations compete for the best staff and would want to be considered an ‘employer of choice’. In times of high unemployment and uncertainty however, it can behave differently and protect its shareholders investment through implementing perceived efficiency savings. The question remains however whether such changes to working practices are actually more efficient.

There is much evidence to support the productivity of teleworkers with a recommendation that managers should measure work outputs rather than ‘face time’ in the office (see for example Pozen, 2012). Further, there is the suggestion that some work harder at home in order to avoid the accusation that their telework is unproductive (Martin et al, 2010). Other research has found that teleworking is positively perceived by many employees and seen to support work-life balance (Morganson et al, 2010). Indeed teleworking has been found to reduce a company’s costs, such as the amount of office space and equipment needed and the time lost through medical and other appointments, as the costs incurred are shifted to the employee (Ozcelik, 2011). Green issues of sustainability are also almost exclusively pro teleworking (Manzi et al, 2010).

The rhetoric of management is often an appeal to ‘common sense’ proposals such as the withdrawal of highly valued benefits such as teleworking. It would appear that despite evidence to the contrary, those with an insufficient grasp of the complexity of modern working practices may regard teleworking as a risky strategy that could be abused by unscrupulous workers and that the elimination of such practices will reduce waste and unnecessary cost. However those with an insufficient grasp of the starkness of the current economic reality may fail to appreciate the increasingly powerful position of work organisations and their ability to alter contracts and source staff from around the globe. This trend threatens the very nature of working life for all but the most specialist workers in the developed nations. Businesses will always look to maximise profit and reduce waste, and if work can be redesigned and carried out by less well paid employees then these ‘efficiencies’ can be exploited and changes to working practices and contracts across the western world can be expected to accelerate.


References

Friedman, T.L. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Pozen, R.C. (2012) Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, Harvard Business Publishing

Manzi, T and Lucas, K and Lloyd Jones, T and Allen, J, (eds.) (2010) Social Sustainability in Urban Areas: Communities, Connectivity and the Urban Fabric. Earthscan 

Martin, L.E., Brock, M.E., Buckley, M.R., Ketchen, D.J. (2010) Time banditry: Examining the purloining of time in organizations Human Resource Management Review, Vol 20, issue 1, March 2010, pp 26–34

Morganson, V, J., Major, D.A., Oborn, K.L., Verive, J.M., Heelan, M.P (2010) "Comparing telework locations and traditional work arrangements: Differences in work-life balance support, job satisfaction, and inclusion", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 25 Issue: 6, pp.578 - 595

Ozcelik, Y (2010) The rise of teleworking in the USA: key issues for managers in the information age. International Journal of Business Information Systems, Vol 5, Issue 3, pp211- 229.

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