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5 Things to Remember About the Yahoo Telecommuting Debate

| February 27, 2013
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yahooThe news that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has banned telecommuting has created as much buzz as her initial hiring, her pregnancy, or her incredibly short maternity leave. In other words, it’s getting a lot of attention, and much of it negative. It’s also sparked a serious debate about the relationship between employees’ work and home life.

The discovery of the internal memo announcing the restriction (dug up by Kara Swisher of All Things D) has stirred up that Internet-age old question of whether working at home actually benefits organizations. KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny took up the conversation Tuesday. Following are edited highlights from the show and things to keep in mind as the conversation rages on …

1) Marissa Mayer’s Job Title is  ‘CEO’ Not ‘Promoter of Work/Life Balance’

“The assumption is, if you’re a woman, you’re going to do things that are beneficial to all women and that that will be one of your highest priorities,” said Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law. “And I think it’s really important to say loud and clear [that] if a woman doesn’t have that as one of her highest priorities, that makes her kind of like most men. And she has every right to. Women should be as diverse as men should.”

As much as the media and perhaps individual women across the globe view Mayer as a  harbinger of work/life balance reform or a bellwether for women in tech, she is simply a woman in charge of a tech giant, trying to keep it profitable.

“To me this isn’t really about work/life, it’s about company/no company,” said Shane Mac, director of products at Zaarly, a San Francisco based startup, who realized relatively early on that his company could not be run remotely.  “It’s about taking in Yahoo, which is a pretty legendary brand and kind of symbolizes what this valley and area is, and not becoming AltaVista, Lycos and AskJeeves …”

“Maybe [management] feels like this is the medicine that Yahoo needs,” said Swisher. “Maybe she feels like there’s no other way of fixing it. Unfortunately what’s happened is she’s created a focus on the work-from-home thing versus fixing what ails Yahoo.”

2. Yahoo Might Have Needed A Kick in the Butt

There’s plenty of evidence that Yahoo has been suffering in recent years and that there’s lots of pressure on Mayer to put the company back on top. Swisher says that the telecommuting ban may have been prompted by a perceived lack of urgency among company employees:

“I know from sources she was frustrated that the Yahoo parking lots were sort of slow to fill in the morning and quick to empty out in the afternoon,” said Swisher. “I think that was a big issue. ”

“When you go to the Yahoo campus, you know when you comparatively visit Google or Twitter or Facebook, there’s a real energy on those campuses and Yahoo for years has been rather enervated …” said Swisher.

3. Working From Home is Productive, Despite Stigma

A recent Stanford study found that workers who telecommute are happier and more productive than their in-office counterparts. The study examined productivity of call center workers for a Chinese travel agency who worked from home versus those who worked in an office. The telecommuters in the study answered more calls, worked more hours, and took shorter breaks.

Forum received multiple comments from telecommuters saying that they are perceived as slackers and have to try harder to make their contributions known. Williams, from the Center for WorkLife Law, called this the “flexibility stigma.”

“The assumption is that if you’re working in a traditional way and not taking time off and your you-know-what is on your chair, then you’re productive. And the assumption is, if you even so much as take family leave, especially for fathers, that you’re unproductive and uncommitted. This is a very strong automatic assumption; it’s a very strong stigma and it’s not related to reality, it’s related to perception. ”

“For men actually, it’s related to the perception that if you’re taking leave or you’re on a flexible schedule that you’re more feminine than other men,” said Williams.

4.  Being Productive is Different Than Being Innovative

Even supporters of telecommuting acknowledged that it wouldn’t work for every company or for every position.

“There are people at Yahoo who could be collaborating and innovating and haven’t been,” said John Roberts, a professor of strategic management and international business at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “And that collaboration and innovation is encouraged by having people there face to face, interacting formally and informally. But for people who are doing technical support or doing relatively straightforward programming tasks, or people who are managing databases — there’s not a lot of innovation potential in their jobs. To allow those who want to work from home to do so makes their lives better, makes them happier, and makes them more productive.”

Said Williams: “It’s not an issue of whether telecommuting suits a company, it’s really an issue of whether telecommuting — properly managed — is suitable for an individual job.”

Just as most of the Forum guests agreed that telecommuting is not appropriate for every position, most also agreed that managing remote workers required a different approach than managing those you see every day.

5. Remote Workers Require Different Management

“The management of remote takes a lot of time,” said Mac of Zaarly, the startup. “And you have to invest in it and put time into it. And if that’s where you set your culture and what you believe in, I think it’s very doable.”

“I don’t think it’s necessarily true that managing remote people takes more time,” said Williams. “I do think it takes some thought and takes some careful thinking through. That’s been done, actually, long since 20 years ago, but you do have to, in a very deliberate way, set up interactions and check-in points.”

Perhaps this is what Yahoo’s shift in policy reveals — that the company simply could not motivate or effectively manage its remote employees: “It’s an issue of management,” said Swisher. “They have to get these people who are working from home excited also. They can’t do that obviously, so they want them all at the office.”

Listen to the entire show here

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About the Author ()

Amanda Stupi is the Engagement Producer for KQED’s daily public affairs program Forum. In that role she turns the information shared during the hour-long call-in show into web-friendly content. Her writing has been featured throughout KQED.org, including on KQED Arts and News Fix as well as on MLB.com, Hyphen Magazine and the San Francisco Examiner. Her radio work has aired on The California Report and Talk of the Nation. Stupi runs the @KQEDForum Twitter account and Forum Facebook account. Her personal Twitter account is @FiftyCentHotdog. She believes that Hostess products get a bad rap and that cereal can save the world. Reach Amanda Stupi at astupi@kqed.org.
  • Someone

    The best years of my career (the first 10) were when I came into the office of my company. It was full energy, people, ideas and discussions. Over the course of my 15 years – I ran projects the last 5 years where no one ever came to a conference room – I still chose to come in so I could really sepearate my house/home and my job.Telecommuting became the ‘in thing’ and was supported to some length at my company. People either worked from home or stayed at their desk for meetings (in order to try and mulittask – please). I was so deflated about being there in the end, it was like a ghost town, I took a nice severance and left. I think there is some real truth to the innovation and energy and ideas that percolate when people are around each other. I actually don’t see anything wrong with what the CEO has asked. Maybe one day a week would still be doable but it sounds like Yahoo really fell into a crevase by really having no-one come to work.

  • Samantha

    While I certainly understand the serendipity factor of having more warm bodies in the office, it is a very large stretch the say that bringing people into the office will make them more productive or more innovative. I have worked for a company that required everyone to be in the office during core hours (and frequently much longer); there was a constant threat hanging over the employees that an empty parking lot or laboratory at 7pm was a sign that we were slacking off and that our groups would suffer. It is an incredibly difficult way to work, and frankly, a lot of my co-workers would stay late or come into work on the weekends and sit in the laboratory and surf the internet, just to be seen. It was generally a waste of everyone’s time. Accurately measuring productivity, encouraging diverse groups of people to interact (in whatever way works), and creating a positive, flexible work environment is much more important than making sure everyone is present. I think encouraging more people onto the campus during the day is a good step to stoke the fire of innovation, but by using this particular method (an absolute command, a complete about-face) it makes the change seem like punishment, not progress. In order to compete with companies such as Google and Facebook, the goal should be to create a workplace people WANT to be in, which is really why those two have retained their creativity: creative work spaces, flexible schedules, social events, creative people, etc.