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Company forces employees to work from home

A man looks at an advertisement on his laptop computer in Los Angeles on November 30, 2009.
A man looks at an advertisement on his laptop computer in Los Angeles on November 30, 2009.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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When the Olympics descend on London this summer, the sprawling city will experience major disruptions and delays. One huge employer there, O2, is trying to figure out how to keep its worker-bees busy through the Games and rethink how they approach work in general.

The top communications company in the UK, O2 conducted a major, work-from-home pilot study. This week they released the results, packed with positive statistics. What they called an "audacious experiment" had the entire staff of its headquarters – 3,000 people – telecommute for one day this past February. The vast majority – 88 percent – say they were at least as productive as normal. More than a third (36 percent) claimed to be more productive. They all saved commuting time, of course, 2,000 hours in all. How did they use that extra time? Sleeping, quality time with family and relaxing, in that order. Mother Earth also breathed easier that day: carbon dioxide emissions were decreased equivalent to a medium-size diesel car driving 42,000 miles.

As a communications company, O2 is interested primarily in how technology is used in these flex-work conditions. It had to upgrade its networks and relied heavily on instant messaging. Ben Dowd, business director for O2, thinks this is the inevitable the future. "[The study] demonstrates that the principles underlying flexible working really are the principles that will build the future of work, and determine the way that people, technology and building interact in the decades and centuries ahead."

Alec Levenson, senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at USC, said the benefits vary depending on the telecommuter's job.

"There can be a lot of benefits to allowing people to work from home, but the important thing is you have to keep your eye on what are the actual tasks that someone's responsible for, because there are some kinds of things that can be done remotely, and other things that can't," he said. "We are, for the most part, a service and knowledge-based economy, and for those kinds of jobs, it is an option to work from home."

Levenson continued, saying that companies can only be successful with this new work model if the environment and rapport between workers is conducive to the change. People need to have the tools and skills to manage tasks on their own.

"If you think back a couple of generations, the way that people were managed was very much micromanagement," he said. Now, "there is a general trend towards companies wanting to free things up. If you hold people accountable for what they do, not how they do it ... it doesn't matter where they produce it as long as they get it done."

Telecommuting is trending steadily and gradually, due to improvements in technology. Coffee shops like Starbucks for example, no longer charge for wifi access, because they've realized that they've become a mobile office.

"If we think back 15 years ago, back when people didn't have high-speed internet connections at home, when cell phones were not in everybody's back pocket with unlimited calling, it was a big deal for someone to try and work from home," Levenson added.

From the phones:

Tom in Anaheim runs a small business with a couple other partners, and agrees with Levenson that the work environment can be a great enabler for telecommuting, if properly designed.

"We're moving our office precisely so it can be reconfigured to be more like home. I think a lot of the environmental design of workspaces isn't appropriate anymore, either open spaces or cubicles ... none of it kind of really works the way a home environment does, when you can nest when you need to, and work when you need to," he explained.

He added that new technologies allow work to be done much more seamlessly and reliably. For Tom, telecommuting does not just require a new lifestyle, but also different tools and environment.

Max called from Irwindale, revealing a negative experience with telecommuting and giving a perspective of someone who must share a space with a telecommuter. "My spouse works from home about half the time, and it's difficult for me to interact with her when she's working," he said. "I walked in when she was in a conversation and she got mad at me, and a couple times we've gotten into fights over the fact that she's working but she's at home."

Lisa in Beverly Hills found that working from home has made it difficult for her to separate work life from personal life. She's been working at home for almost two years at a major publishing company.

"I absolutely love it, but what I find most difficult and challenging for me is shutting down," she said. "I could be working 24/7; it's nice not to have to commute, I'm out and about all day because I'm in sales, but I can be connected all the time. The notion that working from home allows for more balance or more time with the family is not necessarily the case with me, because I have this sense of guilt, even at 7 or 8 or 9 at night, when I'm not connected or not responding to someone in our Asia office or someone in Europe when they're emailing."

Would this work for your work? While the benefits of this study are highlighted, what are the drawbacks?


Alec Levenson, Senior Research Scientist, Center for Effective Organizations, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California