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Kohen on Yahoo’s Authoritarian turn

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Ari Kohen has an excellent post today discussing Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s new policy prohibiting working from home:

I don’t even think about this issue from the perspective of someone who is devoted to family-friendly or feminist arguments (though these are not minor considerations by any means); for me, this is all about flexibility and productivity.

There are certainly some people who benefit from the traditional work environment and there are undoubtedly jobs where “being together” is important. But there are just as certainly some people who do faster and better work when they are in a different environment.

In my own case, there are some times when it’s absolutely critical that I’m physically present at work — either in the classroom, in my office, in a meeting. But there are other times when I benefit a great deal from being able to make use of technology and forward-thinking colleagues to work from home and participate in group work.

As an (obviously idiosyncratic) example (because my job is admittedly not a traditional office job): I’m currently involved in several collaborative research projects with other faculty members and with students. Occasionally, if our schedules allow, we’ll meet in person. More often, though, we’ll meet together on Google+ and share documents via Dropbox. It’s certainly nice to sit down together, but it’s absolutely false that doing so somehow produces better or faster work than meeting remotely.

Read the whole thing, etc. In addition to the obvious benefits for feminism and families, I would add the ecological benefits; driving is easily the most ecologically harmful activity most of us do in our day to day lives, and cutting down on commuting is one of the most obvious ways to reduce one’s environmental footprint. Kohen’s experience isn’t idiosyncratic; there’s evidence (follow the links in the second link) that flexible work arrangements and productivity gains go together. My own experience is a bit different; I don’t always find I’m more productive at home. I am occasionally prone to procrastination and time-wasting, and I often find the best way to address this problem is a change of scenery–from home to work or work to home or either to a coffee shop or the library. (Since I commute exclusively by bicycle, I suspect the productivity boost from a change of scenery may actually be a result of the 15-20 minutes of moderate exercise I get from changing location). But whatever: people respond differently to different environments distractions, the notion that taking away people’s ability to know an manage their own distractions is likely to improve productivity is transparently silly.

It’s difficult for me to interpret Yahoo’s policy shift (and resistance to workplace flexibility more broadly) as anything other than an example of the irrational authoritarian mindset (despite assurances from our libertarian friends that such a thing is logically impossible) many employers and managers implicitly adopt: the fear that someone somewhere might be getting away with something, and that surrendering any control is a loss in this battle. And having spent my life working mostly in the university setting, I see a distinct class element to this. At most universities, faculty are presumed to have maximum flexibility: aside from classes, they are mostly free to set their own schedule, declare multiple days of the week as off limits for meetings, and so on. Virtually all non-academic staff, however, are expected to do adhere to a something approximating a 9-5 schedule. This is often irrational, of course. I have a friend who has a complex and pretty high level administrative job at a university. As positions have been cut around her, she’s absorbed more duties and responsibilities, and her day-to-day tasks often overwhelm her ability to accomplish crucial long-term tasks that require uninterrupted concentration for several hours. And while according to the ideology that prevails in the university setting, the following admission is a sort of heresy: I’m confident her job is more important and quite a bit harder than mine. She’s allowed, informally, to work from home 2 days a month, a highly irregular arrangement that makes her boss nervious, and she rarely manages to get both of them in practice. On the days she actually does work from home, she’s vastly more productive than she could ever be at work, because she’s able to do the tasks her office environment render impossible (and I say this without considering the stress/time/resources saved by not commuting). As a member of the faculty class, I can take 2-3 days a week working from home if I wish, without seeking anyone’s permission, but it’s actually less important for my productivity to do that than it is for hers. As a member of the faculty class, I could declare a long block of time my “writing time”, close my office door, and for the most part not be bothered. But her boss is reluctant to give her the work from home time she needs to do her job, and HR is reluctant to craft policies that incentivize partial work from home arrangements for staff, despite the obvious and significant benefits, (in addition to the usual ones, this campus has a massive parking shortage) because at bottom the working assumption is there are employees the university is meant to control, and employees the university is meant to support, and she falls in the former group.

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