In my role as co-founder and CEO at 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 around it (if you’re interested, you can check out an interview I did on the subject here).
With the increase of online freelancers and more frequent telecommuting, it would be easy to make blanket statements saying that work-from-home just works. And it can, 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 areas: cultural norms and infrastructure.
Consider Culture and 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 through a global versus a local lens. A 2011 poll conducted for Reuters News by global research company Ipsos showed that telecommuting is primarily taking place in emerging markets. They 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 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 telecommuting at 56 percent, also ranked highly on negative factors associated with working from home. India was the most likely country to strongly agree that not seeing colleagues face to face every day makes telecommuters feel socially isolated, and that telecommuting causes more family conflict. As well, they were the second most likely country to strongly agree that telecommuting damages chances for promotion.
But how do we interpret this? 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 explaining the effectiveness of working from home may be missing the point. The question we should be asking is whether the 56 percent of India’s workforce who works from home does so because they want to, or because they have no choice. Looking into the cultural reasons people in India may prefer not to work from home is important.
On the other side is developed and wealthy Japan, where people are less likely to take an offer to work from home. This may be because in a Japanese work setting, workers need to go to the office to be successful, and unlike India, the infrastructure to physically get them there is in place.
Infrastructure Availability Varies
Having a desire to work from home is not the only variable in the equation. We’ve learned that the countries where talent is most cost-competitive are also the places where working from home doesn’t work as well. Internet infrastructure is poor, electricity is unreliable, people burn out and family pressures are high. As a result, performance suffers.
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 by Internet broadband testing company Ookla (166th among the 195 countries included in its survey). Upgrading is either not possible or too expensive.
An easy way to avoid infrastructure issues is to have workers in an office. The norm in countries like India, the Philippines or other rapidly developing talent markets is to have power back-up generators and redundant Internet connections to ensure continuity — options that someone working from home would not be able to set up.
What About My Office?
As with most things, 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 decision as a manager or business owner with regards to work-from-home policies.
These days, work doesn’t only get done in an office — it gets done on a phone call, with an email, over Skype and even face-to-face. I predict that the future of work is somewhere in this grey area. Offices won’t be the only place where people work. But they’ll continue to exist as places to brainstorm, concentrate, socialize and network.
A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s site, here.