Yahoo’s edict that telecommuters work in the office is understandable

March 1, 2013 

It’s not difficult to see why Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer issued an “all hands on deck” alert. She’s trying to turn around a search engine company whose market share has declined as its innovative and creative fires have dimmed.

But instead of rushing in to revive the company, many of Yahoo’s telecommuting employees – along with worker advocates across the country – are bemoaning the company’s abolition of its work-at-home policy.

It’s a familiar tension as so many companies struggle to steer out of this prolonged economic storm, trying to find that balance between keeping leaner businesses viable without trimming benefits to the point overworked employees go elsewhere.

Flexibility to work from home or to work off hours can make up for a lot when the time and tasks pile up for employees who are also trying to care for children or elderly parents or facing long commutes. But, ultimately, executives must be free to decide whether to use telecommuting and when to stop offering it. It’s a convenience, not a right.

North Carolina keeps few figures on the number of telecommuting Tar Heels, though Raleigh came in at No. 5 on a 2010 list of best cities for telecommuting.

Studies show that people who work from home, as 24 percent of Americans do at least a few times a week, actually are far more productive than those toiling in offices. The tradeoff is that they’re less innovative.

It was that need for more innovation and creative collaboration that Yahoo cited for calling in the telecommuters, though it’s more than a little ironic that a technical company based on connectivity is counting on creativity bubbling up from conversations around cafeterias, cubicles and water coolers.

There’s no denying that imagination-dependent enterprises such as Yahoo benefit from the brainstorming and serendipity that can occur most easily when energetic workers are bouncing ideas off one another in face-to-face interactions. These are not people who are doing straightforward tasks such as transcribing a physician’s notes or processing insurance claims.

At Aetna, for example, 47 percent of its workers now telecommute, up from 9 percent in 2005. The New York Times reported that Aetna’s policy led to such a reduced need for office space that the company has saved $78 million in real estate costs.

And that’s really the point. Every company is different and has its own needs, but so does every worker. Smart leaders will find ways to keep a company healthy while also managing to keep good workers relatively happy.

Some Yahoo workers have speculated, though, that one motivation for the new policy is to rid the company of employees whose work ethic has suffered as Yahoo has fallen further behind its competitors. No doubt the company won’t miss those who have come to view telecommuting as an entitlement.

But Marissa Mayer’s bold move might also prompt quite a few valuable employees to log off from Yahoo for good – and leave her wondering whether she went too far by demanding that employees come closer.

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