Yahoo’s Call To End Telecommuting Has Its Ups And Downs


Marissa Mayer may have legitimate reasons for wanting to eliminate telecommuting at Yahoo, but her hardline stance of “office or goodbye” is certain to lose the failing Silicon Valley firm some talented diamonds in the rough that is the geographic United States—not to mention the working parents causing such a ruckus over the decision.

Working from home is not only common in Silicon Valley, but a growing trend nationwide. It allows parents more flexibility with their children, eliminates long commutes and excess use of gas-guzzling automobiles, as well as enables workers nationwide to work in fields that have no presence in their geographic area. So when Mayer’s head of HR issued a Feb. 22 memo telling all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in the Yahoo! offices by June or resign, people were understandably pissed, with some calling the decision “short-sighted and against the tide of where things are heading.” But everyone should remember Mayer is charged with saving Yahoo. Which means the current culture isn’t working out so great. And Mayer believes face-to-face communication will spark the innovation needed to change direction.

A large, robust body of research indicates that companies need to figure out some way to get employees together face to face, because remote work tools just aren’t cutting it,” Sociometric Solutions CEO and MIT research scientist Ben Waber wrote in an upcoming book, “People’s Analytics.” “When making the decision to work from home, employees must weigh personal needs against the negative impact it will have on their colleagues and on them as an individual.

Forbes likened the concept to a family dinner. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of Family Psychology, “families with teenagers may enhance parent-child communication and ultimately promote healthy adolescent development by making family dinner a priority.” The authors claim bodies together foster communication, and that is Mayer’s point, as well. And while it make take more effort to get to work, greater effort often accompanies greater commitment—a necessary quality in a successful company.

The value in human interaction is greater collective wisdom as a result of improved communication and collaboration,” ex-Yahoo ad tech executive Michael Katz told Business Insider. “It’s really all about improving the likelihood that meaningful interaction will translate to meaningful (shareholder) value.

There’s another reason Mayer may be making a good call. According to a former Yahoo engineer who spoke to Business Insider, telecommuting is abused at Yahoo, “something specific to the company.” Apparently Yahoo’s huge workforce has enabled telecommuters to slack off, spending time on non-Yahoo business. Some employees who work remotely don’t show up to office – ever – and have low productivity to boot.

It was a great way to get Y! to pay you while you put in minimal work and do your side startup,” the source said.

Mayer is probably counting on a lot of those individuals to jump ship by June, basically giving her an easy way to trim the fat in a company that needs to cut costs.

But as much as the new policy has merit, isn’t it awfully antiquated? Maybe all the Mayer’s motives would have held more credence five years ago, even two years ago, but new technology enables committed employees to interact with one another just as if they were sitting in a conference room. At the recent Mobile World Conference in Barcelona, a plethora of tech manufacturers showcased devices designed specifically to keep workers out of the office.

Cisco, for example, creates technology it says is capable of recreating every aspect of real-life interaction, except for the physical part. The company will hold its third annual Telework Week beginning March 4 to encourage remote working. Cisco global communications director Marc Musgrove told CNN the company’s video-link products allow employees to talk lag-free in high definition. And GENBRAND chief executive Charlie Vogt said video conferencing and Internet collaboration allow employees to realistically simulate face-to-face interaction.

“With little effort most remote employees can take advantage of intelligent communications tools to elegantly blend the benefits of being part of a vibrant office environment and having the flexibility that comes from working outside the office on a permanent or part-time baasis,” Vogt told CNN.

Even Virgin founder Richard Branson has spoken out against Yahoo’s new policy. In a recent post titled, “Give People the Freedom of Where to Work,” he wrote, “To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision. It is the art of delegation, which has served Virgin and many other companies well over the years.

So if Yahoo is dealing with a lot of slackers who can’t be trusted to work remotely, how about citing those employees for lack of productivity? Make them come into the office until they shape up, or ship out? Wouldn’t that make more sense than penalizing—and possible losing—thousands of highly-qualified, dedicated workers?

The Energy Project founder and CEO Tony Schwartz has the right idea. A consultant to Fortune 100 companies, Schwartz advocates a more flexible workplace. He says the traditional practice of paying workers for their time is outdated, because time doesn’t reflect the true value of the worker. Instead, Schwartz advocates for a system based on self-sufficiency and accountability. Companies set goals for their employees, and it’s the employees’ job to figure out how to achieve those goals in whatever way suits them best.

No doubt Mayer has something up her sleeve. She didn’t get to be one of only 42 female CEOs in the Fortune 1000’s biggest money makers by rushing to judgment or lacking a solid game plan. Time will tell. And for all those griping that Mayer has the luxury of a nursery adjacent to her Yahoo office, don’t hate. First of all, she paid for that nursery with her own money. Furthermore, how otherwise would that baby ever know its mother while she works her CEO hours? Plenty of people would be up in arms if she left the kid with a nanny 18 hours a day. So at least in that aspect, Mayer’s made the right choice.

[Image via Flickr/luisvilla]