What HR professional hasn’t heard the recent news that Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer raised eyebrows and made headlines with her mandate to end the company’s policy of allowing its employees considerable latitude to work from home. The news was delivered to the staff through a memo written by EVP of People and Development Jacqueline Reses. According to Mayer the reasoning behind her edict was that “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together.” This new attitude on telecommuting has ignited a national debate among HR professionals regarding the merits and drawbacks of work from home policies.
An editorial in The Denver Post called Ms. Mayer’s new policy “so 1950′s” while other writers and HR practitioners have praised the policy as a move in the right direction towards restoring camaraderie, unity and personal collaboration back to the workplace. Another large company known for its liberal work from home policies, Best Buy, followed Yahoo!’s lead and eliminated most of their telecommuting practices as well. Both these large but struggling companies cited similar reasons for doing what they did. They were trying to “create a better culture of collaboration and creativity” and that was something hard to do when employees rarely met face to face.
Has Marissa Mayer and Yahoo! Really taken the corporate world a step backwards in its efforts to build a positive, productive and engaged workforce? After so many years of hearing how telecommuting improves scheduling flexibility, morale, work-life balance and even employee productivity will Yahoo!’s new directive start other companies rethinking the value of their work at home policies? And how valid is the reasoning behind Yahoo!’s actions? There are numerous studies and opinions on the pros and cons of telecommuting and they definitely don’t all agree with each other.
In a recent study by Stanford University of Chinese call center workers, it was determined that those employees who were allowed to work from home were actually more productive, saved the company money and were significantly less likely to resign their jobs than other employees who were required to work at a designated call center. The problem with this study and others like it, is that it looks at workers performing very defined tasks with well established parameters and performance productivity measurements. With Yahoo! Employees who are tasked with less defined and more creative responsibilities, telecommuting may not be such a good thing.
In an article written by Global Workplace Analytics, it’s stated that despite numerous potential benefits of a liberal work from home culture, “collaboration concerns” were one of the potential drawbacks of telecommuting. There are just some types of positions, employees and tasks that are more effective in a community environment where employees can interact and meet with each other face to face. All the technology ever invented still can’t replace the innate human need to be sociable and have a sense of being part of a larger group.
It makes sense that if an employee’s role in a company is purely routine such as answering phone calls, taking orders, making reservations or packing widgets then they should be able to do that anywhere. It’s also easy to measure their efficiency and productivity through established performance metrics. But what if an employee’s role is less defined however and requires creativity and collaboration with others, such as developing management systems, brainstorming new marketing plans, designing software or other similar functions? It can be easily argued that having other coworkers around to personally meet with and bounce ideas off of can be a great asset in being successful.
So who’s right? The management at Yahoo! And Best Buy who’ve decided to backtrack on the now almost sacred right of employees to separate themselves from the confines of an office or the “progressive” scholars, pundits and HR consultants that say the wave of the future is virtual office environments? For right now, I’d say it depends. Like most things involving human behavior and emotions, there isn’t an absolutely correct answer for every organization, job type and individual employee. The right answer may very well be whatever works for each company and its specific business segment, needs and corporate culture.
In the meantime, despite all the uproar over the horror of having a major “cutting edge” technology company like Yahoo! decide to end telecommuting, I really can’t see how asking employees to actually work together in one common location, as one unified group towards one common purpose can really be that bad of a thing. Maybe it’s time we started taking a small step back and acknowledging that in the end, there’s a lot to be said about the benefits of using good old-fashioned face-to-face human interaction and real live inter-personal communication skills. These are talents that are fast being lost in today’s tech-heavy world. When it comes to the workplace, maybe it really is time to go back to the future!
Bio of David Davidoff
David Davidoff, SPHR, is a Senior Advisor with Nason & Nason. He has over 20 years of HR generalist experience at a management level in multiple industries. His areas of expertise include employee relations, talent acquisition, employee development and HR policy and procedures. He’s held several Board positions and been an active member of the Greater Miami-Dade Society for Human Resource Management (GMSHRM) since becoming an HR practitioner.