When Yahoo and Best Buy announced that employees would no longer be allowed to work from home, the response was immediate – and split. The debate was echoed in a recent Time Magazine editorial.
On the one hand, the decisions surprised some who believed:
- working at home was already a well-established solution to enable employees to balance work and family obligations;
- it’s environmentally progressive in that it reduced commuting pollution and congestion; and,
- it’s the inevitable by-product of technological advances and the way of the future.
On the other hand, critics of working at home applauded the decision noting that the practice had:
- eroded corporate collaboration;
- raised issues of fairness because too many telecommuters were taking advantage of the situation; and,
- the practice lowered productivity.
We suspect that the debate is just beginning. So far, the solutions that have been offered have satisfied few. For example, to address the perception that work at home is less productive, some organizations have initiated project management tracking procedures with requirements for detailed accounting of time. This approach has irked employees – who see it as intrusive – as a tacit reprimand and a suggestion that they can’t be trusted, as well as being impractical and itself a drain on productivity.
To address the argument that off-site work erodes collaboration, some have increased their use of video conferencing only to be discouraged by the cost and technology glitches; and still, in the end, the conclusion is that videoconferencing is not a replacement for face-to-face discussions.
By far the biggest concern from employees’ point of view is the question of fairness. Some have left the decisions to local management, though this only deepens the fairness issue and compounds it with questions of inconsistency. Addressing fairness by creating criteria describing what tasks and what jobs can be done off-site has proven to be difficult.
Don’t be fooled if the topic hasn’t been formally raised in your organization yet. That doesn’t mean it’s not an issue on the minds of employees and it’s likely that your organization is split along similar lines as those defining the national debate. Still, while the problem may seem intractable, it’s usually best to raise and discuss these matters rather than let them simmer below the surface.
In the meantime, in addition to ethics-related issues of fairness, erosion of culture, collaboration and management oversight and control, the work-at-home debate also impacts business ethics in these more direct ways:
- Do off-site employees have adequate access to policy and training resources which may be available only in-person or via the company intranet?
- Is it clear what your company’s expectations are about the security of confidential information including the use of home computers, storage devices and non-secure internet connections?
- What policies apply to off-site personnel, and which do not? Are there some that apply but are impossible or impractical to enforce? Are there polices specific to off-site employees that need to be enacted? How are these exceptions handled?