By Catherine Albiston and Shelley Correll, CNN
The recent decision by Yahoo’s chief executive to drop the company’s work from home policy
makes sense, doesn’t it? Plenty or people believe that if you aren’t in
the office, you aren’t working; if you aren’t clocking face time with
bosses and co-workers, you aren’t fully committed, and long hours are
the measure of productivity. Right?
sociologists call these beliefs “rational myths,” convictions about how
things should be done that are widely shared but not necessarily
accurate. Back when work revolved around the power loom and the
assembly line, centralized schedules and locations made sense. The
40-hour work week, time-oriented management practices, and our beliefs
about them, became institutionalized during this period.
a lot of what we believe about the right kind of workplace is wrong.
Studies show that people who have control over when and where they work
are more productive and have better morale and loyalty. And face-to-face
office interactions have a dark side.
A Harvard study of software engineers found that emphasizing face time
encouraged managers to arbitrarily label problems as crises and then
evaluate workers on whether they put in long hours in response.
Inefficiency got worse when workers knew management was evaluating only
time, not results — they put in lots of hours, but got little done.
Managers who replaced the clock-watching culture with more rational
planning increased productivity, reduced stress and shifted efforts
toward collectively getting work done.
But what about the collaborations and creativity from water-cooler conversations?
conversations actually may encourage groupthink rather than innovation.
Studies show that people tend to network, cooperate and collaborate
with others like themselves, so hallway conversations may merely result
in interactions among those who think alike. It’s the collaboration
among diverse groups of people that fosters the most creative and
cutting-edge thinking. Because virtual interactions through online
chats and teleconferencing make personal similarities less obvious,
these may be better than hallway conversations for cultivating
Equating face time with
productivity also has gender implications. First, men are more likely
to have supportive partners managing home and family, and therefore have
more time to spend in the physical workplace. Not so for women, who are
more likely to have employed partners, or no partners to help shoulder
responsibilities at home.
is no accident that institutionalized work schedules favor workers in
traditional family relationships; the 40-hour workweek was a historical
bargain between employers and labor for a family wage sufficient to
support a male breadwinner and a homemaker spouse. But only about 20%
of families fit that model anymore, and most of those are headed by men.
on face time can disadvantage women, especially mothers, in other ways.
A Stanford study found that mothers were permitted fewer absences than
fathers, even when their productivity and performance were the same.
Similarly, a study of large-firm lawyers found that hours worked both in
and out of the office positively affected men’s chances for
partnership, but hours worked out of the office did not help women make
partner: Only face time mattered for women.
Why do we cling to the face time fallacy?
real problem is that our cultural beliefs about workplace practices lag
behind technological and other changes in the workplace. They get in
the way of finding new management techniques for the virtual workplace.
Perhaps Marissa Mayer of Yahoo bought into the idea that face time
means productivity because it seemed like a legitimate way to show she
But if recent reports
that she monitors her employees’ remote data connections are accurate,
she could have fired the slackers who failed to log in rather than
demanding that all workers get back to the office. Other companies
promote innovation without requiring face time: 3M rewards employees
who come up with innovative ideas, Google encourages interactions across
departmental divides without eliminating telecommuting altogether, and
companies like Suntell and Gap Inc. evaluate their employees on
performance, not presence.
policy may drive workers with family responsibilities,
disproportionately women, to quit, leaving it more male, young and
childless. With less diversity, innovation will suffer.
explains the other, vociferous reaction to Yahoo’s policy change:
surprised dismay. By allowing employees to work outside the office,
Yahoo and its competitors revealed a new way to work that improves
productivity, diversity and morale. In our view, the outcry at Yahoo’s
retrenchment shows the destabilization of the rational myth of face
time. The shifting culture and reality of work reveals what else might
be possible—and better—for workers and for employers.