Banning telecommuting is a heavy-handed strategy. The rationale for the policy change, according to a leaked Yahoo memo, is that the company needs employees to be available to collaborate with colleagues in person, but the irony in this statement from an Internet company is delicious.
Commentators have debated the wisdom of Yahoo’s approach, some arguing that telecommuting encourages slacking and others insisting that it boosts productivity. The truth, as is often the case, is somewhere in between.
At my last job before my current freelancing stint, I worked for a company that allowed most employees to work from home one day a week — until management decided that it wasn’t working out. The implicit reason was that some people were abusing the privilege, staying home and not getting much work done. In my case, what had been my most productive workday became just like any other, punctuated with interruptions and distractions and noisy coworkers.
Fortunately, the privilege was reinstated after a while, during which interval managers presumably were encouraged to keep closer tabs on the employees who reported to them. It is this point that any company considering whether to introduce or retain telecommuting should keep in mind: Some employees will game the system whether they’re working on site or at home. Also, it’s disingenuous to use the excuse about the necessity of working in physical proximity with colleagues when much of one’s work is solitary or involves communication with people at other company locations or other businesses.
There’s also another issue, one that makes this topic relevant to a site called Daily Writing Tips. Many employees do a significant amount of writing or editing even if their employer is not a publishing or communications company, and telecommuting gives them an opportunity to produce content in an environment with fewer distractions than the workplace offers.
I have worked at several companies where coworkers whose responsibilities entailed little or no composing of content played music, talked loudly or incessantly, and otherwise made it difficult for me to do what I was being paid to do. If this predicament sounds familiar to you, and even minimal telecommuting is not part of company policy, consider these possibilities:
1. Ask your manager to try to accommodate your need to work with minimal distractions, if only occasionally. If you cannot be relocated to a quieter workspace, perhaps you can at least sit somewhere else — a vacant office, a seldom-used conference room — from time to time, as when you need to draft an important report or produce some other significant amount of text.
2. Request the option to work on an offset schedule (starting very early in the morning or ending later at night) so that you have a couple of hours at the beginning or end of the day during which few, if any, other people are in your work area.
3. Ask your manager to monitor noise in the work area and follow up with reminders to employees to minimize sounds and distractions, including telephone conversations — and ask him or her to ban use of phones’ speaker functions. (And if people are allowed to listen to music at their desks, ask that they be required to use headphones.) Supervisors who have their own offices are often unaware of excessive noise (especially when certain workers suddenly become subdued and intent on their work when a manager appears), and they may need to be nudged to address the problem.
4. Suggest a policy that any conversation that takes more than a moment must take place in a meeting room or another area, because trying to write while the person seated next to you discusses a job-related problem (or a recent vacation) with a visiting colleague for half an hour is half an hour of your workday wasted.
5. Ask to be allowed to telecommute one or two days a week on a trial basis, suggesting that you and your manager agree on baseline productivity expectations. If your request is granted, make sure that you significantly exceed those benchmarks.
You may hesitate to make such suggestions, concerned that you will be viewed as a troublemaker, but emphasize the improved productivity and morale that will result for all, not just for you, if such policies are implemented. Your success, of course, will also depend on your manager’s competence and on the company culture.
Consider, too, asking for support from your colleagues (most, if not all, of whom are likely to sympathize and to agree that a quieter work environment would be beneficial). Finally, determine to go to your manager’s superior or to your company’s human resources director if your immediate supervisor does not resolve the issue.
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