Yahoo, the struggling internet giant, has ordered all its employees to begin working at one of the company's offices starting in July, reversing a previous policy that allowed several hundred Yahoos (as employees are known) to work from home full-time. The decision by CEO Marissa Mayer has revived an intense debate over telecommuting, with many arguing that Mayer, who recently had her first child, has set back progress for modern families that increasingly expect their employers to show more flexibility about work schedules.
"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side," reads an internal memo from human resources head Jackie Reses, which was obtained by All Things D. "That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings." And the policy will reportedly not only affect full-time telecommuters, but many more employees who have arrangements to work from home once or twice a week. "It's outrageous and a morale killer," one disgruntled employee told All Things D.
Studies show that working from home probably increases productivity, possibly undermining Yahoo's claim that it's critical for the company's health that employees show up at the office. As KJ Dell'Antonia at The New York Times writes:
Research has found that both men and women want workplace flexibility, and both are more satisfied when workplaces have flexible policies in place. Employers often assume that workers offered workplace flexibility will take advantage of it in the negative sense; but research, again, hasn't supported that assumption. In fact, in a study published the same day as Yahoo issued its memo (but which was widely reported earlier), call center employees at a company in China randomly assigned to work from home were both more efficient and more satisfied. [New York Times]
And technology companies like Yahoo are arguably among the best suited for telecommuting arrangements. According to Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:
Coding marathons are often best done in intense solitude. What's more, Yahoo has large offices in San Francisco and New York, which have two of the longest commutes in the United States. We don't need a Stanford study to know that working from home can add hours to peoples' days that would otherwise be spent in rather less productive gridlock. [The Atlantic]
However, studies also show that telecommuting has its downsides, fostering a corporate environment in which employees trust each other less and communicate less effectively. As Rachel Emma Silverman at The Wall Street Journal says:
From a collaboration perspective, research shows that face-to-face contact is usually the most effective way to engender trust and cohesiveness among work teams — particularly for new employees, or for teams whose members are unfamiliar to one another, says Michael Boyer O'Leary, an assistant management professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.
Face-to-face contact is effective is because it is the most robust way to convey information. Indeed, more than half of emotional information in a conversation is communicated through facial expression, while over a third comes from a speaker's tone and only 7 percent is transmitted from the actual words used, says Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade. [Wall Street Journal]
So while many had expected Mayer, as a new mother, to sympathize with employees struggling to balance work and life, her decision may simply reflect a problem unique to Yahoo: Its dire need for company-wide cohesion. An unidentified source tells Business Insider that Yahoo's telecommuters were "slacking off like crazy," and adds, "Working from home may be convenient for some but it represents a huge opportunity cost to the team, especially a team that's trying to turn things around."
Andrew Nusca at ZDNet echoes that point, arguing that Yahoo must address the fact that it is divided and stuck in a years-long funk:
It is alienation and isolation — as well as the turf wars and resentment that result — that are culture-sapping morale killers. Leaving this kind of thing to fester in your organization as a newly-hired CEO? That is the true outrage...
Mayer's (rather undesirable) task is to put the interests of the whole ahead of the interests of the individual. Her ultimate goal is to crush complacency in an 18-year-old internet company without an identity. You can't fault her for that. [ZDNet]