Unlike in U.S., Working From Home Remains Popular Choice Among Israeli Tech Firms

Many U.S. companies are ordering workers back to the office, but the advantages of remote work are powerful, as the Israeli tech industry testifies

Illustration: Workers hand perched upon typing device.
Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg

In March, IBM informed 4,000 of its employees that they could no longer work from home and gave them the option of choosing from two office sites – or lose their jobs.

The technology giant had long been a leader in flexible work arrangements. Eight years ago, it was allowing up to 40% of its 386,000 staff worldwide to work at home in a win-win situation for everyone. Employees could save commuting time and cope more easily with long hours; those with children could more efficiently balance work-family obligations.

IBM saved $100 million annually in real estate costs by letting staff work at home. They were also able to hire people who lived nowhere near a company office.

But IBM isn’t alone in pulling back from the work-at-home phenomenon. Four years ago, Yahoo ordered its employees back to the office. “People are more productive when they’re alone, but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together,” then-CEO Marissa Mayer said at the time.

It seems that the same tech companies that pioneered the WFH movement – a natural move, since they were developing the tools that made it possible, like the internet – are leading its retreat in the United States.

Israel, on the other hand, seems to be as committed to WFH as ever, especially the high-tech sector. A 2016 survey of 200 human resources managers at tech companies conducted by the HR firm Ethosia found that 72% allowed staff to work at home.

Although those who work from home carry the stigma of being perceived as lazy, unproductive workers, nearly nine out of 10 companies who did allow it were satisfied their employees’ performance.

“What it’s taught us is that almost every high-tech organization, big or small, in the center of the country or in the periphery, was doing it,” said Adi Ironi, Ethosia’s vice president for recruitment.

The continued popularity of WFH in Israel is a little strange, given that one reason it’s so widespread here is that Israelis love to follow global tendencies.

“It’s a characteristic of Israeli culture to go with the trend. If something is popular around the world, they adopt it here,” said Dr. Raphael Snir, who heads the master’s program in organizational psychology at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yafo.

Most companies follow a model that allows employees to spend part of the week working at home and part at the office. Only the smallest startups let staff work from home all the time, said Inbar Hasten-Pardo, an HR manager at Ethosia.

Whether or not it’s a trend in Silicon Valley, tech companies have good reasons to encourage WFH. The industry’s famously long work hours gradually comes at the cost of employee performance. “Research shows that people who routinely work more than 50 hours a week are more at risk of getting sick and their creativity suffers. Long hours can also create serious conflict with employees’ families and even lead to divorce,” said Snir.

“More often than not, long hours don’t contribute anything but come at a cost to workers, especially women, because in Israel there is still the perception that women should stay home and take care of the family,” he said.

Working from home can help with find the balance.

“Today everyone has a smartphone, which has become a workplace environment in its own right," said Sigal Srur, Ethosia’s senior vice president for HR. "The idea that you’re working from home isn’t relevant. An employee can work at the office, go out for a coffee with a laptop or work while sitting on a train.”

But what about the problems of shirkers out of the boss's sight? Hasten-Pardo said it depends on the job, but there are many positions where performance can be monitored remotely.

“In tech work like software or software quality control, they look first and foremost at productivity,” she said. “Another measure is teamwork and it’s important to ensure that this isn’t undermined by the physical distance between employees. In work involving providing services, you can measure things like quality and level of service in addition to productivity.”

Hasten-Pardo advises that employers examine the productivity of those who combine work from home at the end of each month, quarter or year no less carefully than those who work at the office.