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Working From Home: The New Great American Debate

Steve Delfino, VP, Teknion
Friday, 22 Mar 2013 | 1:24 PM ET
Jamie Grill | Getty Images

As central as the office is to so many of our lives, the recent debate over the benefits of working in or out of one had a tendency to veer toward extremes.

As if the decision to allow people to work in-house or from home was always an either/or proposition. It's not. The office is going to remain home base for almost anyone who works for a company.

Melissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who ignited the debate with her decision to call her troops home to the home office, would agree. At the same time, she grew up at Google, the company perhaps most responsible for making it possible to work remotely, and a place where the option has long been available.

Right now for her new company, she feels the need to make the most of the particular energy of real, not digitized, eye contact and gesture and conversation.

(Read More: Is Sexism Behind the Yahoo Uproar?)

Yahoo's Mayer Raises the Bar
Tuesday, 12 Mar 2013 | 3:36 PM ET
Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer ended telecommuting, and now she is reportedly tightening up hiring standards, reports CNBC's Jane Wells; and Fred Hassan of Warburg Pincus, weighs in.

Her approach won't work for everyone.

Sometimes in the recent debate it seemed there were two irreconcilable camps.

On the one hand, the collaborationists, people certain that it's always best to labor within the cross currents of cubicle culture, breathing in the stimulating synergy of fresh, even combative ideas. On the other hand, the individualists. They believe in the power of an isolated spirit to work most productively at home. No suit, no tie, maybe even in their pajamas. So long as you get it done.

A middle ground could be hard to find.

That's a shame, because that's certainly where the solution lies. There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution here. What works for one company will not necessarily work for another. No two workers are exactly alike and neither are any two workplaces.

(Read More: Commentary: Yahoo!'s Mayer Should Be Measuring Talent )

The best result of the debate would be if it became an opportunity for companies to look in the mirror. To consider their own "in-or-out-of-the-office" policy. Some organizations might want to follow Yahoo's lead. Others might want to go in exactly the opposite direction. All can benefit, though, from considering a few, basic questions: Is your "in-the-office-or-out" policy working, or just "the way we've been doing it for a while now"? Can you measure the benefits of your policy? Have you tried? What do managers and workers say? Are they in synch?

Broadly speaking, there are some answers already out there. Questions that haven't been asked for some time. Past workplace surveys can help frame how each company now might approach its own workplace situation:

The Pros: Productivity.

There is something to that pajama option. A recent study concluded that people who work at home have a significantly higher degree of productivity. On average, in fact, stay-at-home workers typically spend an additional 10 hours on the job each week. That dovetails nicely with another statistic: the average commute time is also 10 hours. The fact is, it's not all that much fun to just sit at home and stare into space. People want to do something. Studies show that at-home are willing to give back time not spent commuting to work. And, remote workers do report a greater sense of work/life balance.

The Cons: Going it alone can be lonely.

And we do rely on co-workers. In fact, research shows that employees are considerably more loyal to one another than to the companies that employ them. That cohesion builds corporate culture, and it can unquestionably spark ideas and animate collaborative approaches, as anyone who's ever worked in even a reasonably well-run office will know. Without those cultural, intellectual and indeed psychic bonds something is lost on any team. Well – the team.

(Read More: Yahoo Says New Policy Is Meant to Raise Morale

The pros and the cons speak to a basic insight. They key is flexibility.

Decisions based on a company's very specific, very unique needs at a given moment in time. Give – so that collaborationists and individualists remember that they're still, always, co-workers. Individual initiative, after all, must always be encouraged in even the most collaborative workplace. And there should be active or revitalized opportunities to ensure that workers who stay at home stay connected.

The bottom line of the great Yahoo debate? Whether you're a collaborationist or an individualist all of us need to respect the most basic fundamental of any successful workplace: we're all in this together. Companies that encourage that attitude, with flexibility and constant attention to the ever changing dynamics of every workplace, will flourish.

Steve Delfino is the Vice President, Corporate Marketing & Product Management at Teknion.

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