In my role as cofounder and CEO of a company that helps businesses attract and retain remote talent in emerging markets, I often get asked about the future of work. Specifically, people ask me about best practices for managing diverse remote talent bases and whether or not it’s a good thing to let employees work from home.
However, there is no perfect practice, because people around the world are motivated by different things. What people value is influenced by their culture, and companies should try to understand what motivates specific people to perform in order to build systems, incentives, and processes that help them perform. (If you’re interested, you can check out an interview I did on that subject here.)
As the number of online freelancers increases and more and more workers begin to telecommute, it would be easy to make blanket statements about how working from home “just works” – and it can work, but only in the right context.
While you may enjoy working from home, I’d caution against generalizing based on your own preferences and background when dealing with a diverse global workforce. When businesses look at their work-from-home policies, they should start by taking into account two major factors: cultural norms and infrastructure.
Considering Cultural Norms
When you dig into articles about working from home, the data shows that the benefits are not as black and white as you might expect, especially when you look at things from a global perspective. A 2011 poll conducted for Reuters News by global research company Ipsosfound that telecommuting primarily takes place in emerging markets. Ipsos took a sample size of 11,383 online connected employees from 24 countries and asked a range of questions about working from home. Those working in the Middle East and Africa (27 percent), Latin America (25 percent), and the Asia-Pacific (24 percent) are considerably more likely than those in North America (9 percent) and Europe (9 percent) to telecommute “on a frequent basis.” India, which had the highest percentage of frequent telecommuters at 56 percent, also ranked highly when it came to the negative aspects of working from home. In India, people were most likely to strongly agree that not seeing colleagues face to face every day makes telecommuters feel socially isolated and that telecommuting causes more family conflict. Similarly, people from India tended to strongly agree that telecommuting damages one’s chances of earning a promotion.
But how do we interpret this data? One response is to say that just because telecommuting is prevalent, doesn’t mean it’s good. Although I don’t believe you can draw any hard conclusions from a poll like this, I think it raises questions that are often overlooked. Essentially, data that explores the effectiveness of working from home may be missing the point. The question we should really be asking is whether the 56 percent of Indian workers who work from home do so because they want to or because they have no choice. To get a better understanding of the data, we should really look into the cultural reasons why people in India may not enjoy working from home.
Availability of Infrastructure Varies
As it turns out, countries where talent is most cost-competitive also tend to be places where work-from-home arrangements don’t work so well. In these places, Internet infrastructure is poor, electricity is unreliable, people burn out easily, and family pressures are high. As a result, performance suffers in a work-from-home context.
Places like the Philippines — a country with a large number of online freelancers — have poor Internet infrastructure in the majority of residential areas. Home Internet connections in the Philippines are among the slowest in the world, according to rankings from Internet broadband testing company Ookla: the country placed 166th out of 195. For many people, upgrading is either not possible or too expensive.
An easy way to avoid infrastructure issues is to have workers come into an office. The norm in countries like India, the Philippines,and other rapidly developing talent markets is to have backup generators and redundant Internet connections to ensure stability of infrastructure – things that someone working from home would not be able to set up.
What About My Office?
There is no one answer to the question “Should my employees work from home?” The best answer is that culture and infrastructure should impact your decisions regarding work-from-home policies.
These days, work doesn’t only get done in the office — it often gets done on phone calls, via emails, and over Skype as well. I predict that the future of work lies somewhere in this grey area. Offices won’t be the only places where people work, but they’ll continue to exist as places to brainstorm, concentrate, socialize, and network.
Patrick Linton is cofounder and CEO of Bolton Remote, where he helps fast-growing businesses reliably tap into large, dynamic, and cost-competitive international talent markets.