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Corporate Feb 27, 2013

Yahoo! ban on telecommuting: Retrograde, anti-family, and self-defeating

By Lakshmi Chaudhry

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer has taken the great leap backwards. She has banned telecommuting for all her employees, and in a manner that can, at best, be described as patronising.

"Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together," wrote HR chief Jackie Reses in her now infamous memo, "Beginning in June, we're asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration."

That's right, kiddies! Even that rare day that you may want to work from home - because of the cable guy or a sick child -will now be scrutinised by management.

The growing intolerance of telecommuting is not unique to Yahoo!. Google, for example, isn't big on working from home, as its CFO Patrick Pichette recently explained:

The surprising question we get is: 'How many people telecommute at Google?' And our answer is: 'As few as possible' ... There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer 'What do you think of this?' These are [the] magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of your company, of your own personal development and [of] building much stronger communities.

The Silicon Valley culture has always been about getting your employees to spend as much time at work as possible. But until Mayer came along, no one had ever issued a no-exception, blanket ban. Contrary to Pichette's rhetoric, as AllThingsD notes, "many Googlers are allowed and even encouraged to work at home. The company told me when asked about work-from-home policies: 'We do not have a formal policy and leave Googlers to use good judgment.'"

Reuters

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Reuters

Mayer's decision sparked a firestorm because it smacked of top-down dictatorialism, evoking the bygone image of the factory boss and his time cards, making sure each of his workers punches in the required hours. Within the context of the 21st century workplace, it wasn't just retrograde but also just plain absurd.

The 24X7 workplace

The ban on telecommuting may seem old-fashioned in a wired age where technology has made it easier that ever. But it provoked a firestorm of criticism precisely because the same technology ensures that none of us work fixed hours any more - whether we work from home or in an office. The demands of our job now seep long into the night, and into our weekends, in an incessant stream of emails, messages, and phone calls. With our work-life balances so out of whack, increasingly harried employees want to be freed from the oppressive demand that we perform our increasingly onerous jobs within the physical confines of the office.

It is unsustainable and unhealthy for a society to expect its workforce to devote ever greater hours at the workplace, at the expense of their personal lives. It is also unproductive. Many of Mayer's critics have already pointed out that working from home may in fact increase productivity by insulating employees from the distraction of office politics and socialising. Research has also shown that those who work from home are also far less likely to watch the clock, or resent working during late hours or on weekends.

Above all, the ban on telecommuting in a high-skill industry undermines morale, as Richard Branson argues, "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 ... Working life isn't 9-5 any more. The world is connected. Companies that do not embrace this are missing a trick."

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by Lakshmi Chaudhry

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