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Working From Home: A Benefit or a Distraction?

This article was written by in Career and Work, Featured. 23 comments.

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, is looking to improve her company’s performance. In a memo from the company’s human resources department to all employees, Mayer made her intentions clear. In order to build a more cohesive company of employees, all work from home arrangements are canceled.

The confidential memo was made public by Kara Swisher at AllThingsD. The letter called for all employees who normally work outside of Yahoo premises to show up at the office. Even those who might need to wait at home for the cable guy on rare occasions were suggested to reconsider their absence from the office.

This seems to be a step backwards. We are in an employment recession, in which workers are continually told to just be thankful they have their jobs and to accept any abuse their employers present by uttering, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”

Despite this economic condition where the balance of power is weighted heavily towards employers, companies have been trending towards offering more flexible working arrangements. The arguments in favor of flex-time and working from home are reasonably strong:

  • Flexibility is a benefit that employees want, and when employers provide it, boosts morale. Better morale, in turn, inspires workers to enjoy their jobs, and happier employees make better employees.
  • Workers often report fewer distractions and more time spent working when they are in an environment outside of the office. That leads to higher productivity, and higher productivity is good for the company.

Why does the CEO of Yahoo want to move backwards, taking away one of the beneficial features of working for a twenty-first century technology company, where most job functions can be completed well regardless of location? She states her reasons in the memo:

  • Working side-by-side spurs communication and collaboration.
  • Impromptu discussions and meetings foster better decisions and insights.
  • “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

I will argue with the last point, but otherwise, Mayer has identified the benefits of physical presence. There is no denying that something has been amiss with Yahoo. As a company, it is losing its relevance in a tech world dominated by Google, Apple, and Microsoft. It may not be fair to take away benefits that employees appreciate, particularly when many undoubtedly accepted the Yahoo job offer with the expectation that these benefits would continue be available. And there is probably validity to that thought that this is a way to trim down the fat: employees who love Yahoo will stay and put up with the change, while employees who may not have been as dedicated to their job will leave.

I’ve seen this attitude at companies before. Voluntary attrition always backfires. By making conditions worse for employees in an effort to let a portion of the workforce go without explicitly firing people, Yahoo stands to lose its best employees, not its worst. It’s simple: the best employees have more options open to them, despite the high unemployment rate. The best employees have worked hard to increase their personal human capital — their employability, their desirability, their potential value to others. These folks can do better than Yahoo. They can find a job relatively quickly, one offering the benefits no longer available at the waning tech behemoth.

Nevertheless, a company during its growing period needs people who are going to be 100 percent dedicated to the tasks at hand. No one ever became a superstar without sacrificing something from their personal life, and Mayer is looking for a company of superstars. Excellence requires personal sacrifice, and that means less time for family and less time for friends. Mayer seems to be hunting excellence, and anyone not prepared to make those required sacrifices is not welcome to the team. This often unfairly targets moms, who disproportionately take care of home-focused responsibilities, and are looking for that work/life balance so often lauded by human resource departments.

It’s no wonder that people are calling Yahoo’s move a step in the wrong direction for gender equality in the workplace.

Marissa Mayer is familiar with making personal sacrifices. She skipped her own maternity leave to continue to work. Her attitude has done well for her; she is the CEO of Yahoo.

Not every developer at Yahoo has designs for being an executive at a major company. In fact, most of the developers I know aren’t interested in management at all, and they’re quite happy to quietly code from whatever location they happen to be at the moment, meet with each other over the phone and through online video conferencing, and put it more hours than expected because they aren’t wasting time by commuting, wasting energy with small-talk among co-workers already wasting time in the office, and wasting attention through constant distractions. They’re happy to stretch out in their own space rather than being confined to a tiny cubicle.

The CEO of Yahoo wants a leaner company. Without saying so explicitly in the memo, she wants Yahoo to operate like a start-up, where employees put the mission of the company above all else, including their personal lives. She wants to breed work superstars. Judging from the reaction, this is a drastic change from Yahoo’s current corporate culture, and it could be just the thing to shake it up.

My suggestion is for Yahoo to make coming to the office an enjoyable experience. If people like to be there, they won’t think so much about how they miss working from the couch in their living room or being available for family at all hours. Eventually, Yahoo will reverse this possibility. In order to make Yahoo a relevant company again, something like this could be the shake-up the company needs.

There are better ways to make this change, though. Canceling an expected privilege of working for a technology company with a memo from human resources is not going to be well-received, and it will likely have the opposite effect on employee morale. The goal is for employees to make sacrifices for the sake of building a better company, but Yahoo needs to represent something worth sacrificing for first, and that comes from great leadership. It appears that Yahoo is not there yet.

Photo: Flickr

Updated March 6, 2013 and originally published February 26, 2013.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

At least they now get free food. That might be incentive enough to make people happy. At least for a little while :)

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avatar 2 Luke Landes

That’s the key — if they’re going to force developers to work from cubicles instead of their comfortable homes, they better make the place more inviting to “live” in.

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avatar 3 Ceecee

Just what we need now—–more commuters clogging the roadways and having to pay rediculous prices for their gas. It is a step backwards. If she wants workers to get to know each other then have meetings or luncheons at HQ periodically. Better yet, set up a system for company employees to connect through social media—–they are a tech company, aren’t they?

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I generally agree with most of your points here.

I think Mayer is perhaps making a common mistake that new leaders make, namely turning their new company into their previous company. It appears she may be trying to turn Yahoo into Google. The reason I think this is usually a mistake is that Google is Google (culturally) because it was built from the ground up to be Google. Google was built on the Google model by hiring Googlers (namely people who bought into that model and culture). That is not to say Yahoo couldn’t be Google, but it can’t be Google with Yahooers, those people are not Googlers. You are not going to turn them into Googlers by making them do things the Google way. They either don’t subscribe to the Google way, don’t value the Google way, or don’t actually function best the Google way. Otherwise many of them would have already went to Google.

What Mayer is likely to find out is that Yahoo is not Google. What Google had that was special will likely turnout to also be somewhat unique to Google. Cultures are like organs. You can’t simply transplant them anywhere you want to. You need to have a near perfect blood type match. If you don’t you get systemic failure as the new host simply rejects the new organ. If Yahoo is not a near perfect blood type match to Google (which I doubt it is), transplanting Google culture into Yahoo is likely to result in a systemic failure as the host rejects the transplant.

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avatar 5 Luke Landes

I really like that analogy. From her perspective — Mayer was hired because of her success with Google, and with the intent of bringing her kind of success to Yahoo, so she’s doing what she was hired to do — make Yahoo more like Google. That’s what the board of directors must have intended when they hired from the outside rather than promoting someone within to CEO. She was hired to change the culture, but boards should know that transplants don’t work like that, as you pointed out.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

So what do you do? Ignore what you want to happen and hope for the best? No. You make small changes towards your eventual goal dropping off those that can’t adapt.

If you don’t like the rules there. Quit (or don’t even interview). Free market will take care of it.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

This is a calculated move. Has nothing to do with creativity. That is just the BS spin put on it to sell it to you.

This is to get telecommuters to quit. Yahoo needs to increase revenue, and they are bloated. They need to reduce the workforce. They can fire people, or make them quit. Making them quit looks better. Getting people to quit on their own because of the telecommute spin is even better. Objective met, and the company doesnt look bad achieving it.

This is about money and increased profits, it has nothing to do with creativity or cohesion with co-workers.

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avatar 8 Luke Landes

So far, it has made the company (and Mayer) look bad. If everyone sees through the appearance and recognizes that this is a “kinder” way to fire people — and it’s not, because at least if you get fired you get your severance package; quit and you don’t — it’s looks even worse than a round of layoffs. If this approach was an attempt to look better from a public relations perspective, using the concept of better cohesiveness as a guise, it failed massively.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

I worked for a company that utilized attrition to thin its ranks. Then they claimed that they could not find enough qualified employees stateside and were “forced” to offshore the work to other countries.

Yahoo may be doing the same. It might be a calculated excuse to farm specific operations out to workers in other countries who are willing to work for pennies compared to their American counterparts.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

I think she is trying to change the culture of the company. It is a bunch of small strategic changes that are necessary to let everyone know things are different now. It goes along with raising the standards. She may lose some people, but the overall result will make up for the changes.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

Employees have to be flexible for their employers. Employers should exercise the same flexibility.

-Christian L. @ Smart Military Money

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avatar 12 Anonymous

What’s very interesting about this brouhaha is how it has galvanized opinion from all across the country. It’s not just about Yahoo anymore, it’s about us, how we live. I remember working on a study about the future back in the early 80s. Back then, telecommuting was but a gleam in the eye of everyone who tried to predict the future of business. The only limitation at the time people could think of was technology.

In the years ensuing, we have seen telecommuting become an established part of working life, both at large employers and startups. It has come to the point where nobody bats an eye on hearing the news that good friend Sally is now working from home.

But that doesn’t mean telecommuting has become mainstream. As we are finding out, the biggest obstacle in the progress of mankind isn’t technology, it’s mankind itself.

In time the Yahoo thing will settle down, as these things always do. But it will leave the nation in a much greater awareness of telecommuting as a part of daily life. The outrage we are seeing tells me we as a society are taking a stand for telecommuting as a new way of life.

And I think that’s a great thing.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

“…….Canceling an expected privilege….”
I’m a strong advocate for work-life balance and firm believer that investing in employees yields greater returns. However, a proven fact doesn’t mandate that a business should make decisions based on the notion. Telecommuting, as more common place as it’s becoming, is still a workplace benefit/privilege NOT an entitlement. Your job is to make things work for the company and not the other way around (no matter how noble or a smart decision as it might be).

“This is to get telecommuters to quit.”…….
If someone feels losing a benefit is worth quitting, then that’s on them. My company has slashed 401k and other benefits and, though it hurts and I don’t care for it, I’m not throwing a hissy fit and pity party about how they’re trying to make me quit. There are other aspects that I value which keep me around and if one of those were to go, I’d move one. An employer is ALWAYS in the best interest of itself.

“…..if they’re going to force developers to work from cubicles instead of their comfortable homes, they better make the place more inviting to “live” in”
They choose to work there and if they feel they’re being forced to make a paycheck, they can say screw you and stay at home in comfort or go somewhere else where they can. Even better yet, they can find a way to work for themselves and run it how they want to…maybe try a blogger (lol)

I don’t believe this was the smartest move on Yahoo’s part. However, I’m even more troubled by some of the reactions to it. A job owes you a paycheck not to make you happy. At the end of the day, just because you’ve grown accustomed to something being given to you, you have come to expect it and you feel you deserve it, does not make it a right. This kind of thinking continues to get us in more trouble and it scares me to see how it spills over with the next generation.

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avatar 14 Luke Landes

Still, if you are sitting in an interview with a potential employer, and the interviewer extols the benefits of working for the company including flex time or remote access, an employee might choose to work for that company instead of another that does not offer such benefits. It would be a smart idea on the job-seeker to discredit any benefits that can be taken away — but all benefits, including a salary, can be reduced at any time. I could be hired at a certain salary and later “informed” that my salary would need to be cut for the benefit of the company as a whole. Forgetting about unions for a second, which have gotten weaker over the last few decades, there is no balance of power — employers make the rules and change them at will. And if the employees don’t like it, they can find other jobs.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

Well I for one am much, much less productive working from home. I do better in an office environment. I still enjoy having the freedom to “work” from home every once in a while if I need to be home for some reason, though.

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avatar 16 Anonymous

Personally I don’t like working from home much. I find it hard to concentrate at home and I also my desk, office chair at work is a lot more comfortable to sit at for hours at a time than my setup at home. I’m more effective at work even when I’m not interacting with coworkers.

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avatar 17 Anonymous

My mother in law’s company is going the other direction and starting a big push for working from home. The only problem is that her and my retired father-in-law live in a 900 sq ft apartment with a husky. There is no way she would be able to get any work done. So instead, she is going to rent space from us at our house and work from our home!

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avatar 18 wylerassociate

I love working from home, it’s great. You save money on gas & it’s more relaxing. Besides, there is still so much work to get done that you can’t slack off or you lose the privilege of working from home.

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avatar 19 qixx

I’ve worked for a company that took away work from home privileges. They did it to cut costs (there were weekly online meetings and monthly in-person gatherings). Travel costs cut any gains from telecommuting. They came out ahead after the cut. If at Yahoo i’d support this.

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avatar 20 Anonymous

All of those workers who now have to strap on a tie and enter the morning rat race — I am sure they’ll be so happy to be there that they sure wouldn’t work to sabotage the company…. would they?

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avatar 21 Anonymous

Yahoo is competing with all other Silicon Valley companies and start ups for talent. This policy will endear the company — which has all the markers of a company in perpetual decline anyway — to nobody, and will hurt them in recruiting. When Meyer is replaced in two years, this will be one of the many examples of her foolish leadership that people will point to.

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avatar 22 Anonymous

This was an interesting development. I’m not sure if I agree with Mayer, but still… It’s bold.

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avatar 23 Anonymous

I’ve never understood the appeal of Yahoo…..I see no reason why they exist.
From nonexistent tech support to criminal scams working on the site (surely
no one would deny that advertorials are run by scammers?) to incompetent
writing on ‘news’ articles……why, why, WHY?

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