Corporate Feb 27, 2013
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.'"
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."
No parents need apply
Mayer's new policy is out of step not just with the new workplace but also the 21st century family. Huffington Post's Lisa Belkin writes that the Yahoo!memo takes us back to "40 years ago, when work and home were separate realms and workers had the luxury of taking care of one at a time. More accurately, men had the ability to take care of work because they knew that women had it covered at home."
It's a luxury that most of us can no longer afford, or even desire. Dual income families are no longer an exception in the urban professional class, and the struggle to juggle family with work responsibilities inevitably takes its toll. Parents spend far more time distracted and worrying about their untended kids when they are at work, than if they are able to keep them closer at hand. And since family demands are no less inelastic, they are also more likely to run right out the door the moment they've put in the required hours - irrespective of whether the work is done or not.
Mayer solved her problem by building a nursery for her 6-month old son in her office. Other of her employees won't have that privilege. "I wonder what would happen if my wife brought our kids and nanny to work and set em up in the cube next door?" asks a husband of a Yahoo! employee.
Telecommuting has been a boon for a parents in the United States. In India, however, where such privileges are rare, the results are plain to see. A survey of multinational companies in 6 Asian countries reveals that "India is unique in having the biggest percentage of women dropping out of the workforce, known as the 'leaking pipeline,' between the junior and middle levels," notes Rupa Subramanya on India Real Time.
Gender inequity aside, the 'leaking pipeline' represents not just a personal loss to the women, but also a loss of talent and invested resources to their companies and society at large. There are many ways to calculate loss of productivity, other than Mayer's narrow parameters.
Losing out to location
An employee's physical presence in a brick-and-mortar office isn't always a win-win for a company. Insurance giant Aetna, for instance, has shifted 47 percent of its workforce to its 'Telework' program, saving 2.7 million square feet in office space and $78 million in operating costs.
Add to this the productivity cost of commuting that grows ever higher in an era of urban sprawl. Cities sprawl out into ever extending suburbs, and the price of real estate continue to rise. All of us spend more and more time in traffic, travelling back and forth to work. These long commutes also act as a stress multiplier, making us less productive by the time we get to office, and more exhausted when we finally reach home.
Then there are the invisible opportunity costs of prioritising presence. Companies lose out on potential employees who can't or won't relocate -because of the cost of living in a more expensive city, schooling needs of the children, career demands of a spouse etc. The talent pool available for hire is much bigger when geography becomes immaterial.
This isn't to say that everyone ought to have the right to work from home. A number of jobs require an in-office presence. And truth be told, some employees don't have the discipline required. Moreover, it is unwise to work from home at stages in your career when visibility is key. The need for "together" time for interaction and ideation is indeed real -both for an ambitious employee and her company.
But a flexible policy that allows, say, parents, irrespective of gender, to telecommute a couple of days a week will make them happier, more productive, and without impeding the "magic" of collaboration. And treating all self-motivated employees with trust and respect -while setting firm expectations and deliverables -can earn a company that rare and precious asset: the gratitude and loyalty of its workforce.
A ban on telecommuting, on the other hand, treats employees as productivity machines, and of the most untrustworthy kind. As Belkin writes, "Yahoo! is cracking down not only on those who work from home full-time, or those who need flexibility because they are parents; everyone is being warned that their lives don't matter."
Full disclosure: This writer and three of her fellow senior editors all work from homes spread across the nation and the world.
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