Should employers allow telecommuting?

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Free Wi-fi cafés have sprouted up throughout Malaysia in recent years. Does this mean that telecommuting should be encouraged? (photo credit: Starbucks Malaysia) Free Wi-fi cafés have sprouted up throughout Malaysia in recent years. Does this mean that telecommuting should be encouraged? (photo credit: Starbucks Malaysia) Free Wi-fi cafés have sprouted up throughout Malaysia in recent years. Does this mean that telecommuting should be encouraged? (photo credit: Starbucks Malaysia)

By Oon Yeoh

Oon Yeoh Profile Pic

Oon Yeoh Profile PicLast month I wrote about Marissa Mayer and how she is revamping Yahoo to make it competitive again. She’s acquired companies, she’s restructuring the company to focus on a few key growth areas and she’s prioritizing mobile.

One very important decision she made, in February this year, has nothing to do with acquisitions, restructuring or mobile. Mayer put a stop to telecommuting, which had become commonplace in Yahoo.

Apparently, Mayer had grown increasingly frustrated that the Yahoo parking lot was slow to fill up in the morning and tend to be quick to empty by 5 p.m. — something not typical of Silicon Valley tech companies.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” said Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s human resources chief, in a memo sent out to staff that was leaked to the media. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”

That decision sparked an industry-wide conversation with opinions ranging from being downright dismissive to fully supportive. Whatever the case, it’s got people talking about the whole issue of whether working from home is good or bad for productivity.

The initial reaction from many tech industry watchers was one of indignation. Many tech commentators decried this as old fashioned thinking and characterized Mayer as being out of touch with the realities of modern working culture.

“Dear Marissa Mayer: It’s Not 1987 (A Case for Working Remotely)” (by Arwen Petty) is a typical headline for commentary against Mayer’s decision.

A one-size-fits-all workplace “is one that is bad for people who can’t drop everything for the water cooler,” says Salon.com’s Irin Carmon, in her column, “Free your workers, Yahoo!”

“With telecommuting ban, Mayer dulls Yahoo’s cutting edge further,” says Steve Woods at Technorati, who notes that many of the best companies allow telecommuting.

“Marissa Mayer has made a terrible mistake,” declared Slate.com’s tech columnist Farhad Manjoo, who cited a report by researchers at Stanford University which showed that when Chinese call-centre employees were allowed to work from home, their performance increased by 13%.

As a telecommuter myself, my immediate reaction to the news was also that she’s made a mistake. Having seen my own productivity soar because of my telecommuting work arrangement, I truly believe it’s the best way to work. Not everyone’s cut out for the 9-to-5 office environment.

But then again, I do realize that not everyone is suited to working remotely either. Some people do need the discipline of fixed office hours to get their work done. And although Slate’s Manjoo was able to show some research demonstrating that working from home improves performance, there is also data that supports the opposite view, a point highlighted by Ben Waber, CEO of Sociometric Solutions, who supports Mayer’s decision.

When I read such conflicting research results, I couldn’t help but think of the old Mark Twain maxim: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

Mayer at first refused to discuss her polarizing decision but two months later, she addressed the media frenzy about her decision in her closing keynote at the “Great Place to Work” conference in Los Angeles in April.

Addressing a crowd of human resources professionals, Mayer repeated a key phrase the company used in a statement it released after the memo was leaked: “It’s not what’s right for Yahoo right now,” and added, “It was wrongly perceived as an industry narrative.”

Mayer defended her decision by first acknowledging that “people are more productive when they’re alone”. But she stressed that “they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”

What Yahoo needs now is more collaboration and innovation. That’s what’s lacking in Yahoo, which is why it is understandable that she would want to stop the practice of telecommuting.

Despite my bias in favour of telecommuting, I would give Mayer the benefit of the doubt. She knows how to build an innovative work culture. Before joining Yahoo, Mayer helped create the much-admired work culture at Google, a company that frequently tops the rankings for the “Best Companies to Work For”.

Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.              

 

 

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