When even Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer wants workers in the office, is the homeworking revolution over?

Companies and employers won’t always give us top marks for our homework, but there are still several forces driving work outside the office

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Has working from home peaked? The huge shift towards homeworking has been driven, of course, by the communications revolution, so it should bring us up sharply when a leader of that world – Marissa Mayer, the former senior executive at Google who is now head of Yahoo! – should tell her employees to stop working from home. The policy starts in June and is driven apparently by concerns that homeworking leads to sloppiness.

“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” explained the company’s head of human relations, Jackie Reses. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”  

So what should the million Britons who work from home, not to mention the 2.5 million of us who work from a variety of locations using home as a base, think about this? Actually, I don’t think we should worry too much because the economic forces behind the shift to homeworking are so powerful that they will run for a while. Every year in Britain around 100,000 more people become homeworkers. But the push-back from Yahoo! is interesting because it highlights a practical difficulty: how do you manage people if you can’t see them?

More than 20 years ago the management writer Charles Handy identified what has become a dominant shift, the division of people into core workers and portfolio workers: people who run a business and those – some on payroll, some self-employed – who supply services to it. Others have noted the way in which a modern home is becoming a factory where people do a lot of their work, while the office is becoming a club, the place where people go to interact with their colleagues.

To be sure, the “home as a factory; office as a club” distinction does not apply to every activity. Some jobs require physical proximity: a car factory, a hospital, a dealing room all need people on the spot to do what has to be done. But there are several forces that are driving work away from the office to other locations. It is not just that technology makes it possible; it seems to be more efficient.

One of these drivers is the need for calm. Many people, faced with the need to write a long report, find it better to work away from the distraction of the office. Another driver is cost: why pay for more office space than is needed? Another is the desire to reduce commuting time: do the two-hour commute into the office twice a week instead of five times.

Another is the increased globalisation of the world economy – all that pecking away on the laptop in hotel rooms and airport lounges. Overlaying all this is the changing job structures, with self-employment rising as a proportion of total employment, and companies becoming a mix of salaried staffers, people paid on commission, and people who are self-employed.

Self-employment does solve one problem of homeworking. People don’t need to be managed because they manage themselves. But it creates other problems, such as the specification of their contracts and quality control, and beyond a certain size businesses become hard to run if they don’t have the core workers who give direction and make sure customers are satisfied. Once you are the size of Yahoo! and have revenues of $5bn a year, you need people: 11,500 of them.

No trend continues forever and the two associated shifts, to homeworking and to self-employment, will eventually peak. There are certainly good reasons for people to work in physical proximity. This column arose from a 30-second conversation with the deputy editor which would not have taken place had I been writing from home. But I suspect that these twin shifts still have a long way to run.

Should more offices ban working from home? Join our debate here.

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