Many Southern California wage earners got a taste of telecommuting in 1994, after a 6.6-magnitude earthquake dropped the Golden State and Santa Monica freeways like so many Tinker Toys.
Even after repairs were completed a year later, commuters were loathe to give up such an attractive alternative to punishing prices at the pump or wasting the annual equivalent of 15 to 25 workdays just getting to work. According to the Independent Telework Research Network, the number of telecommuters surged a staggering 73 percent from 2005 to 2011.
Yet, if you number among the 24 percent of employed Americans who work from home at least once a week (Bureau of Labor Statistics), you’re probably not too happy with a recent move by the newly minted CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, to outlaw telecommuting for her 11,000 employees.
Even Bill Gates has weighed in on her controversial decision, despite a valued partnership between Microsoft and Yahoo. With a broad smile on his face, Gates told the CNN Money interviewer that Mayer’s thinking on telecommuting seems to be running counter to the trend toward more, rather than less, flexibility.
“If you’ve got development centers all over the world,” he said, “you’ve got a sales force out with the customers, the fact that tools like Skype, digital collaboration are letting people work better at a distance, that is a wonderful thing.”
You would think that Mayer — not only ushered into the executive suite at 37, but also while pregnant with her first child — would try to make the Yahoo corner of the business world much more welcoming to working parents.
“The irony is that (Mayer) has broken the glass ceiling,” Ruth Rosen, pioneering historian of gender and society, told The New York Times, “but seems unwilling for other women to lead a balanced life in which they care for their families and still concentrate on developing their skills and career.”
To give Mayer credit, Yahoo was badly in need of a real live grown-up with a genuine business plan, when Mayer came on board July 16. The former highflying startup, whose stock prices may have skyrocketed during the dot-com bubble, failed, in recent years, to get before such obvious cyber-trends as mobile apps and social media.
Mayer found nearly empty parking lots and cubicles. Employees who did show up spent as little time as possible at the Sunnyvale campus. Furthermore, of the 200 Yahoo employees with full-time work-at-home contracts, not only were too many of them significantly unproductive, but a few had even carved out enough spare time to launch startups of their own.
To telecommute, or not to telecommute? That is the question. The correct answer, of course, to any “either/or question” is invariably “it depends.” It depends on what each individual business or corporation needs to succeed.
Many an employer has been persuaded to offer telecommuting as the result of studies claiming rises in employee productivity. To what degree it occurs, however, depends, of course, on such widely diverse work factors as hours, efficiency and intensity.
In his landmark “Making Telecommuting Happen: A Guide for Telemanagers and Telecommuters,” Jack Nilles, the management consultant who coined the word “telecommuting,” wrote that productivity increased on the average of 22 percent. On the other hand, in his article in JR Magazine, J.M. Weiss reported a 200 percent increase in output in the telecommunications industry.
But even the strongest proponents of telecommuting draw a distinction between productivity and innovation. While working at home may lead to increased productivity, no such case can be made for increased innovation.
To that end, Jackie Reses, director of human resources at Yahoo, noted in the companywide memo following Mayer’s decision: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”
So how will Mayer square Yahoo’s policy with the multitude of surveys insisting that 80 to 86 percent of American employees want the opportunity to work from home?
Especially when the Telework Research Network points out: “if those employees who held telework-compatible jobs (50 percent of the workforce) and wanted to work at home (79 percent of the workforce) (and) did so just half of the time (roughly the national average), the economic benefit would total over $700 billion a year.”
Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici posed this question to Mayer: “Is treating your workers like they’re 5-year-olds really the best way to foster a culture of personal incentive and accountability at an organization where it’s been sadly lacking?”
Hopefully, it won’t take another earthquake for Mayer to change her mind.