Thursday, 28 February 2013

Telecommuting: Is Banning it a Terrible Idea?



In light of the alleged ban of telecommuting by Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, I took the opportunity to address some key points on the issue. I read the memo and despite the media coverage, there was no mention of a “ban.” Employees were “asked” to come to work physical locations in the interest of fostering a more collaborative environment … and then the world exploded.

As someone who has worked on both the administration of a telecommuting policy, and telecommuted myself, the media coverage of this issue struck a chord with me.  First, let’s take a look at a few of the issues.

Entitlement
Granting your employees the ability to work from home gives them the flexibility to balance their personal lives and their work. This type of flexibility really lets your employees know you appreciate that they can benefit from not having to be in the office all day. Nothing says work-life balance like being able to take a conference call on the toilet, while there’s a roast in the oven. Employees who have enjoyed this privilege up until now will be just as outraged and offended as if their pensions had been rolled back.

Legal Obligations
Employers are required to provide telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation for disabled employees. An all-out ban would be completely illegal. The interesting component to this will be how Yahoo addresses employees who refuse to come back to the office on a full time basis. Do they have a clause in their contract that requires an employee to be in the physical office when asked, and does it cover the frequency with which they are now being asked to be present? Could an employee argue that the terms of their employment included the assumption that they would have telecommuting privileges?

Cost
A remote workforce obviously reduces overhead for the company, but also reduces the cost to the employee. This includes daycare, transportation, parking and more. This is going to be another bone of contention as employees start to experience increased work-related costs as a result of this new initiative. It’s not good for Mayer’s PR that she’s increasing daycare costs for some of her employees after building a nursery onto her office. However, she paid for that nursery with her own money, and rich people have babies differently than the rest of us.

Innovation
The whole purpose of the change in Yahoo’s telecommuting perspective is to foster innovation within the company (I used the term perspective, because there doesn’t appear to be any changes to a policy anywhere in the memo). There are many strategies and tools companies can use to encourage employees to communicate with their peers remotely, but honestly nothing really beats living with your co-workers for 8 hours per day. You never accidentally bump into anyone at your home office, and you rarely interact with anyone you don’t work with directly. Being physically present in the office creates a lot more opportunity to interact with co-workers on a more personal level.

Example: Employee A bumps into you in the hallway and complains about project X, and you (as an outsider) can provide input that may different from other employees assigned to the project.

Yahoo is really just going to have to gauge the feedback from employees to determine how this will play out. The media backlash is really coming from people talking about efficiency, and it WAS implied that employees cannot be as efficient from home, which contradicts a whole lot of recent research. Many are shocked that this reduction in flexibility is coming from a working mom…she went to work two weeks after childbirth…why would you think she would sympathize with someone who doesn’t want to drive to work in the morning? 

2 comments:

  1. Good post. I find it frustrating that people are judging this decision because she is a woman and because she just had a child. If this was Steve Jobs or Larry Page people would immediately agree with them.

    Why do you think that Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter, Valve, and many, many other tech companies provide amazing offices, free food, and tons of perks on-site? It's because they all realize how important it is to keep employees at their workplace! It isn't just that they will be able to talk to each other and figure out problems, but brand new ideas can come up while they are playing ping-pong, getting their hair cut, or having lunch. The more time they spend at the workplace, the more the company gets out of it.

    And yes these companies let employees telecommute, but every one of them would prefer to have the employees at the workplace with everyone else.

    Mayer worked at Google since it only had 21 employees. Of course she is going to have the same view. This "radical change" is nothing but the new mindset of tech companies replacing the antiquated ideas of companies like Microsoft.

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  2. Agreed! I also think a lot of the backlash is from the idea that Yahoo is supposed to be an innovative, forward-thinking company, and a lot of people associate that with more flexibility, virtual offices and hover desks. The idea that they would return to a more traditional method of working really throws people for a loop.

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