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Why five days in the office is too many

Prerna Gupta
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The hustle and bustle of daily office life is distracting and sometimes doesn’t let employees function at their best

For most of my professional life, I have worked from home. The freedom to work outside a traditional office was one of the main reasons I left the corporate world eight years ago, at age 23, to start a software company.

The idea that all employees should sit in the same place for eight hours a day, five days a week, seemed maddeningly inefficient to me. I knew that I was at peak productivity at certain times throughout the day, with regular lulls in between. The flexibility to determine when and where I worked made me a better worker.

But as my company grew, something surprising happened: I started to feel the pull of the office. As an employee, I still had little desire to spend all of my day there. As an employer, however, I wanted to ensure that my employees were working efficiently. Requiring everyone to be in the office for at least part of the week seemed the easiest way to do that. I also saw the value of the conversations that arose when people were physically together in a room.

When I heard last week that Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s chief executive, was banning its employees from working at home, my first thought was, “I’m glad I don’t work at Yahoo.” But I also understood why she felt compelled to enact the policy, at least for now. She is in charge of a huge company that is known for its bloat. This may be exactly what Yahoo needs to get back on track. The question is whether the policy will improve productivity in the long run.

Different times

The idea that everyone must be in the office five days a week harks back to a time when workers didn’t have the proper tools to work from home, but we live in a very different world today. Given that technology has made employees accessible around the clock, and that they are often expected to work after hours, the traditional 40-hour schedule is in many ways an anachronism.

Yahoo argued in a memo announcing its new policy that “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.” That is certainly true. But it is also the case that some of the most creative insights come only when you give the human brain unstructured time to think. Opportunities for such freewheeling thought rarely present themselves amid the hustle and bustle of daily office life.

In today’s world, where we are constantly connected and almost constantly working, the office should be reconceived as a gathering place to communicate ideas and to reinforce personal bonds. Beyond that, employees should be given the respect, and the responsibility, to manage their own schedules and complete their work on their own time, from wherever they choose. This is the principle we followed in my business, called Khush. We came to the office three days a week for five hours a day, starting around noon.

In 2011, a larger app company, Smule Inc., acquired us, and I learned that complexity grows along with the size of a team. Communication is an ever-bigger challenge. Details can be overlooked. Opportunities for spontaneous collaboration can be missed and the best of intentions misunderstood. And yet, regardless of a company’s size, the fundamentals of productivity do not change. Smart people still work best when they can choose when and where they are working. Such flexibility also helps employees who are parents. Some of our engineers often take a break in the afternoon to pick up their children from school, then come back to finish their work. And the work always gets done on time.

Smule was already fairly flexible about scheduling, asking its employees to work a minimum of five hours a day, four days a week, in the office. Recently, as our businesses merged more fully, the company asked the employees from Khush to switch to Smule’s schedule. But instead, I persuaded Smule’s CEO to switch all employees to the three-day-a-week minimum that my company had maintained. He agreed to the change even though he had reservations about it — he is a big believer in face time.

I think this policy comes closest to a middle ground that satisfies the needs of both employers and employees. Rather than leaning on organisational principles designed for an older time, companies should collectively develop new strategies to remove the remaining challenges to working from home.

© 2013 New York Times News Service

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