If you ask 100 attendees at just about any business conference how many work from home full time, a few hands will go up. If you ask how many sometimes work from home, a hotel or a customer site, almost every hand will go up. The number of hands that go up if you ask how many never work anywhere but the office? Maybe one.
The changing nature of the workplace received a lot of attention this winter after Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced  that most of her company’s employees needed to leave their home offices behind and instead work nearly all of the time in the office.
The public debate that ensued following Mayer’s announcement brought into sharp focus three of the chief issues that any business must address when allowing telework: understanding the difference between managing people and managing production, making workers efficient and productive and taking advantage of modern communication tools.
Telework programs early on suffered because managers knew how to manage only people they could see or reach by taking a stroll down the hall or across the corporate campus. But as technology made telework practical, managers — particularly at technology companies — learned to focus on the work rather than the workers. They started to ask themselves questions such as: If a programmer gets a revision done by the deadline, does it matter where she sits?
There is a distinct advantage for many workers who toil away from the office — it’s quiet. A critical workplace issue today is how to limit distractions in cubicle or open-office environments. In some companies, white noise is pumped into the office to dampen other sounds. In many offices, it’s common to see workers wearing headphones to block out chatting and schmoozing so they can concentrate on a project.
Many workers need the ability to focus intently on a task for extended periods of time. That’s the realm of programmers, engineers, writers, designers, troubleshooters, analysts and many others.
Studies by major companies — such as American Express, British Telecom and Dow Chemical — have found that teleworkers produce 35 percent to 45 percent more work when at home than when in their cubicles. Ultimately, productivity might be higher by providing an environment that fosters focus. Some workers might need to be alone to do their jobs well.
When a company lessens its support for teleworkers, it potentially hampers mobile workers as well. While an introverted programmer might prefer a notebook computer and quiet, a mobile salesperson must have a notebook (or tablet and smartphone) and a connection to corporate data to do his or her job.
Many of today’s trending technologies support a mobile and distributed workforce.
Ultrabooks, tablets, smartphones, private-cloud applications, software as a service apps and smartphone apps all support workers on the move — and usually that means out of the office.
IT teams support teleworkers and mobile and distributed workers using the same tools. If management puts the kibosh on telework, it’s likely that support for some of the best new technology powering smart companies today will suffer as well.
Forget that telework frees up office space, allows companies to hire the best workers (not just the closest) and provides built-in business continuity through a distributed workforce. Those benefits are well documented.
Instead, consider the advantages to the business of providing workers with tools for collaboration and brainstorming — electronic tools that exist for a multitude of devices. Consider the productivity that could result from rethinking what “at work” really means.