When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting at her company this spring, the uproar was instant and loud. Critics called the move a step back in the struggle for work-life balance, while supporters argued that face time fosters innovation.
“There’s no reason that people who work from home can’t be just as productive as they are in the office,” says telecommuting expert and UT sociologist Jennifer Glass. Glass spoke with the Alcalde about why she believes telecommuting holds great promise for employers and employees alike—if it’s done right.
What’s the biggest misconception about telecommuting?
Everybody thinks of telecommuting as hours that substitute for time in the office. But my research shows that two-thirds of telecommuting is done after people have already spent 40 hours at the office. The majority is unpaid overtime.
You’ve found that the number of hours Americans telecommute has not risen since the mid-1990s. Why is that?
We have a very strong managerial culture that suggests time spent at work is an indicator of productivity. Productivity is hard to measure, so managers tend to look at who’s at the office the most and assume, often falsely, that they are doing more work. So we need that culture to change, and we need better productivity metrics.
How are smartphones affecting the way we work?
The mental health effects are not great. We have data showing that those who are constantly connected have a difficult time with work-life balance. Work is becoming a 24/7 mentality, and we’ve hit a tipping point where it’s a problem for the majority of working families.
So if most workplaces are doing it wrong, who’s doing it right?
England actually has a right-to-ask law allowing employees to ask for flexibility in when and where they work. Employers can say no, but they have to say why not, and an employee can appeal to a magistrate if they disagree. It hasn’t clogged the courts there—most requests don’t disturb the workplace and can be met.
How do you telecommute?
I’m lucky because academia has long been a huge supporter of telecommuting. When I really want to concentrate and write, I can go to Mozart’s on Lake Austin with my laptop.
Recently I’ve noticed that technology has increased the number of teams I’m on at other universities. It’s really enriched my work.
Aside from work-life balance, are there other benefits to telecommuting?
If telecommuting became more widespread, our air quality would improve and our gas dependence would decrease. And our traffic! Imagine a world without rush hour on I-35.
Photo courtesy ZUMAPRESS.com.