working women

What Work-from-Home Policies and Baseball May Have in Common

Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom studies management practices and describes “be nice to employee policies” (e.g. working from home, part-time working, maternity and paternity leave) as the real controversial, dividing line between “good and great” company management.  In his research, he has found evidence that flex policies are win-win situations for both employers and employees, helping companies with their bottom lines and increasing employee satisfaction and productivity.  So why does he think that flex work policies — and specifically work-from-home policies — have not been more widely adopted by companies?  He believes that a baseball analogy makes sense:

Moneyball is the great story…of how the Oakland Athletics outperformed other baseball teams by using more advanced and clever player recruitment tools. It’s an inspirational David-vs-Goliath story, in that by being smart, the Oakland A’s could outperform teams that had much more money. But what struck me what how all the firms before the Oakland A’s started using these practices were getting it wrong, and even after the Oakland A’s started winning like this the other teams took almost 10 years to copy them. So firms definitely do make mistakes, and these are often slow to be corrected…In the case of WFH, I think it is a new practice, and it has been aided a lot by modern computing and telecommunications, and as such is something unfamiliar to firms. Many of them are scared of or unaware of these types of practices, and so are systematically making mistakes.

In other words, Professor Bloom believes that companies are simply mistaken when they don’t adopt work-from-home policies.  At the same time, he concedes that there aren’t large-scale studies of this issue. In other words, its hard to find proof that work flexibility is something that benefits everyone.  This is probably because office dynamics involve things you cannot measure e.g. the impact on employees who don’t work from home, issues around collegial camaraderie, communication and spontaneous idea exchange, etc.

As someone who has managed and worked with both full-time employees, work-from-home employees and those with partial work-from-home schedules, I can say that its hard to talk about the issue with a broad stroke generalization because how and whether work flexibility “works” for both the employee and the organization depends on multiple factors: the manager, individual employee, his/her role in the organization, as well as the nature of the company’s work.  I think the “proof” issue is the real crux of the work flexibility controversy and what campaigns like WorkFlexibility.org (whose data is in green the banner, above) come up against.  That’s why Professor Bloom’s advice seems sensible.  He advocates that companies who are work-from-home-“curious”, try flexibility at convenient, low-impact times (e.g. public transportation strikes) or on a small-scale so that they can experiment and see the impact for themselves.

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