Skip to main content

Benefit of office face time a myth

By Catherine Albison and Shelley Correll, Special to CNN
updated 10:51 PM EDT, Wed March 13, 2013
Catherine Albiston and Shelley Correll say research disproves the
Catherine Albiston and Shelley Correll say research disproves the "face time fallacy."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shelley Correll, Catherine Albiston: Work in office more productive, right? Wrong
  • They say studies show those who can control where they work are more productive
  • They say men who worked in and out of office more likely to make partner than women
  • Writers: Yahoo's edict on telecommuting a blunt instrument based on face time fallacy

Editor's note: Catherine Albiston, professor of law and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Shelley Correll is professor of sociology and director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. This article was written in association with The Op-Ed Project. Watch Soledad O'Brien's interview with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on "Starting Point" at 7 a.m. ET on Monday, March 18.

(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?

Not exactly.

Organizational 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.

Catherine Albiston
Catherine Albiston
Shelley Correll
Shelley Correll

But 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.

Simplify your life: Telecommuting isn't just for parents

But what about the collaborations and creativity from water-cooler conversations?

These 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 innovation.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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.

It 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.

Sandberg insults some women
What it means to 'lean in'
Welch: Mothering a competitive sport

Focusing 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.

Who works from home and how they do it

Why do we cling to the face time fallacy?

The 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 meant business.

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.

Yahoo's new policy may drive workers with family responsibilities, disproportionately women, to quit, leaving it more male, young and childless. With less diversity, innovation will suffer.

This 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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Catherine Albiston and Shelley Correll.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT