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The Great Debate: Should You Let Employees Work From Home? Yahoo and Best Buy may have concluded that telecommuting doesn't work for their companies anymore, but it could still make sense for your business.

By Randy Myers

This story originally appeared on Business on Main

Faster Bunny
Marissa Mayer

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer sparked a national debate last month when she decreed that Yahoo employees will no longer be able to work from home -- and now Best Buy is following suit for its corporate headquarters employees. Mayer's stated goal was greater collaboration, and she may have a point: Extensive research, including a massive study conducted by Harvard Medical School's Isaac Kohane, suggests that proximity to one's colleagues is a key driver of innovation.

But there's also research suggesting that employees who work at home can be more productive than their in-office counterparts. And plenty of businesses large and small have found that telecommuting, especially when deployed part time, can create a best-of-both-worlds environment that fosters happier, more productive and more loyal employees.

"Work at the office to collaborate with the team," observes Amy Marshall, chief operating officer of Internet marketing company Fathom Columbus, "and work from home to get things done with fewer interruptions."

Making it work
Making telecommuting work relies in part on making sure off-site employees have the tools they need to be productive, from simple telephone and Internet connections to, in some cases, video-conferencing hardware and software and document-sharing services. But it's important to make sure employees are ready for the responsibility.

"Many companies decide whether someone works from home based on the job itself: Can it be done remotely?" observes clinical psychologist Aubrey Daniels of Aubrey Daniels International. "This is a fundamental management error. The decision should be based on whether the person has earned the privilege of working at home. If the person is a poor performer at work, they will most certainly be a poor performer at home." And, one might argue, they will most certainly be fired eventually.

Ari Zoldan, CEO of Quantum Networks, a technology incubator in New York City, says his once-generous telecommuting policy was not sustainable for his firm. "People were taking advantage of it," he says. "We would have office days with half our employee base missing to 'work remote' for one reason or another, and it was impeding productivity and efficiency in the workplace." He now requires that employees who want to work from home schedule it at least five business days in advance.

Others have found ways to make sure off-site workers keep their end of the employer-employee bargain. To make sure deadlines at her marketing and PR firm are met, Kristin Marquet, president of Marquet Media in New York City, has her employees send in detailed weekly updates while working off-site.

Ellen Arndt, communications manager at AlphaCard in Portland, Oregon, says her firm uses a cloud-based project management service to track daily assignments. "Employees must record what projects they plan to work on at home, and then check off what they were able to complete at the end of the day," she says. "Harnessing this tool allows supervisors to have visibility into productivity patterns and provides accountability to employees."

Tailoring your approach
Often, different companies find that different approaches of managing off-site workers make sense for them, depending upon the nature of their work and their workforce. Some employers, for example, swear by software programs that track the tasks employees are performing, the websites they're visiting, and how much time they're spending away from their computers.

Hassan Osman, a senior program manager at Cisco Systems, where he leads virtual teams on delivering large and complex projects and programs, dislikes that approach. "Although it might be perfectly legal, you would be defeating the entire purpose of a teleworking arrangement," he says. "The idea is to give employees the flexibility of integrating their personal and work lives so that they can take care of non-office-related tasks during work hours if they need to. You're better off not agreeing to the telecommuting arrangement in the first place if you're going to be constantly monitoring their activity."

Perhaps, although some business owners would surely argue that for them, telecommuting is more about allowing people to work where they're most productive and less about letting them squeeze in non-work activities. But for everyone who takes that view, there's another who recognizes that employees are subject to many distractions in an office environment, too.

Yung Trang, president of the daily deal website TechBargains, is probably typical of business owners who like the idea of letting employees work from home but also worry about how it will impact their business. To make it work at TechBargains, Trang has established clear ground rules.

"First, working from home is a privilege, not a right," he says. "It can be revoked if abused. Second, when you are working from home you must be available -- and productive, via email, chat and phone -- as if you were here in the office. Third, if working from home impacts productivity and adds to the work of others, then you must come into the office."

Still not sure if telecommuting is right for your company? Why not start small?

"Sometimes employees work better in their own spaces. Sometimes they don't," says Emily Taffel, who lets employees at her firm, Mugsy PR in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, telecommute. "But you will not know unless you give it a try."

A former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones and contributor to Barron's, Randy Myers is a contributing editor for CFO and Corporate Board Member magazines.

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