Former founding Googler and Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Meyer raised eyebrows last year when she abruptly cut off telecommuting opportunities for Yahoo employees. The tech world was aghast. Telecommuting had long been championed by forward-looking business leaders as a way to build employee loyalty and improve productivity. Could everyone be wrong? Maybe, maybe not.
A new study by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom and graduate student James Liang shows that answering the question is more complicated than merely stating that telecommuting is always helpful or always harmful. While Ctrip, the China-focused online travel company studied by Bloom and Liang, enjoyed substantial benefits as a result of telecommuting, Yahoo’s circumstances were different and may have required a different approach, Bloom pointed out.
Time shift advantage. While my observations are not as academically rigorous as Bloom and Liang's study, I am seeing the benefits firsthand of working remotely now that I have moved from Salt Lake City to Hong Kong for MWI, the online marketing firm I founded. Although I saw occasional spurts in my productivity on those occasions I telecommuted from across town while working for the U.S. headquarters in Salt Lake City, since relocating in Hong Kong I have experienced a sharp increase in my output.
These days I’ve been able to keep my hand active in U.S. operations, write for publications, manage a live event series here in Hong Kong, blog three times a week, attend various meetings throughout each week, train for a trail-running race and be involved with my family and the community. I don’t say this to brag but to point out that I’m able to get a lot more done here than I could when telecommuting from a place in the same time zone as the main office.
This would have come as no surprise to David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, founders of Basecamp and authors of the book Rework, which advocates for a results-oriented work environment with a healthy dose of telecommuting. Fried says the current work environment is optimized for interruptions, not work. At work, people are interrupted by meetings, co-workers, emails and phone calls. The real work gets done early in the morning before anyone else arrives or late at night once everyone has gone home. Any work done during the day tends to be accomplished inefficiently and with more errors, since it’s difficult for an employee to focus.
Telecommuting only solves part of this problem. While working from home reduces the likelihood that a co-worker will pop in to chat about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, the same question might be asked via email or a chat window. But even legitimate interruptions, like an email from a client asking when a project will be finished, are still interruptions that decrease workplace productivity. People tend to see these as unavoidable, but my move to Hong Kong proved to me they are anything but.
Hong Kong’s time zone is, at least for half of the year, exactly 12 hours the opposite of New York's. This makes real-time communication via phone, email or chat inconvenient at best. When I worked in the United States, I would respond to all emails almost immediately. I didn’t want to keep anyone waiting. But that simply isn’t feasible when working in Hong Kong, since many of the emails I receive come in at 3 a.m. Hong Kong time.
Fear of missing out. At first I was frightened to go to sleep each night. What if something important happened while I was sleeping, and it took me six hours to respond? What if my team members forgot about me because I wasn’t instantly available? What if I tweeted and nobody I knew was awake to retweet it? Oh, the horror!
None of my fears materialized. Yes, from time to time important things happened while I slept and I would have been able to contribute better if I'd been awake like everyone else in the States, but my partner and the rest of the team have been able to manage just fine. In fact, it has forced them to step up and take care of things in a way that has forged a better company. My team members didn’t forget about me, and as for tweeting, thank goodness for Buffer, which allows for scheduling ahead.
But not only did everything work out OK, I find myself getting more work done. This is because each morning I can wake up and work almost interruption free. Everyone else was asleep. I could batch process a day’s worth of email in a half hour. I could write articles like this without anyone poking a head in the door to ask a “quick question.” Instead of having my train of thought derailed every few minutes, I can complete tasks on my own schedule, at a single go, eliminating the time I used to spend getting back into a task multiple times.
As I have located clients in Hong Kong and work more for Asian businesses instead of projects for U.S. headquarters, I’m finding that my productivity is slipping a bit. That’s to be expected, since I have successfully created a new set of interruptions here. I often still work out of a home office and can wear my slippers if I like.
Perhaps you should move across the world like I have, but keep company headquarters where it’s at. It might be the best change you can make to get more done.