Yahoo’s perplexing work-from-home ban


Marissa Mayer, then with Google, gestures as she gives an interview in this January 21, 2008 file photo in Munich, Germany. She has since been appointed CEO of Yahoo. (OLIVER LANG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
February 25, 2013

The last organization you might expect to stop its workers from telecommuting is a Silicon Valley tech company.

But according to the Wall Street Journal’s Kara Swisher, Yahoo is doing just that. Yes, an Internet giant, whose success depends on seizing the future of the Web, has told its employees they can no longer work remotely from their home computers. Starting in June, it will ask those “with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices,” according to an internal memo reported by Swisher, who writes that the edict apparently extends even to employees who telecommute only one or two days a week. “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” Yahoo’s HR head wrote in the memo that Swisher published. “That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”

There is painful irony in a Web company that touts its mobile strategy at the same time that its HR chief calls it critical for all employees be “physically together.”

The company memo does permit using one’s judgment on the occasional need to “stay home for the cable guy.” (A Yahoo spokesperson responded to my email with questions about the policy by saying the company doesn’t comment on rumor, speculation or internal matters.) Still, the overall impression the memo seems to leave is of a nearly blanket ban on working remotely. Even more painful than the irony could end up being employees’ reaction to such a move.

Such a policy could very well hurt Yahoo’s chances at recruiting the most talented young developers, engineers and executive talent. Some may not be willing to relocate to live near a Yahoo office, limiting the size of its recruiting pool. Others may simply like the now widely accepted idea that working from home, say, once a week, can help clear away the distractions, prevent getting lured into pointless meetings, and eliminate the drive-by chatter that can destroy even the most focused engineer’s concentration. After all, anyone who’s ever worked in a cubicle farm knows that while open floor plans might encourage collaboration, they also encourage hours of lost productivity.

Moreover, whatever improvement the company sees in speed, quality and innovative ideas could be offset by decreased satisfaction among current employees. Studies have shown that telecommuting improves employee productivity, engagement, job satisfaction and retention, even if it also means those who work from home often end up working more hours. So it stands to reason that taking away the ability to skip long commutes and work in an environment with fewer interruptions could have a negative impact on workplace morale.

Finally, studies do little to capture the intangible and indirect effects such broad-based decrees like the Yahoo memo have. If in fact few exceptions are made, such a mandate could lead managers to feel like their judgment isn’t valued. Similarly, a blanket ban can make employees, particularly professionals who are already spending many of their evenings and weekends working, feel as if they’re not trusted.

It’s certainly possible that remote work arrangements had gotten out of hand at Yahoo, with people abusing the privilege and staying away from the office to the point where the costs of the perk outweighed the benefits. And Yahoo is right, of course, that there are big advantages to the sort of serendipitous conversations and quick decision-making that face-to-face proximity provides.

But there’s a way to encourage those happenstance run-ins and speedy decisions without dictating face time across the board. Give managers some leeway to decide who’s capable of working out of sight, and who’s not. Give employees the chance to work remotely on regular occasions if they earn it. Meanwhile, limit access to the privilege so that enough spontaneity still takes place among employees — creative developers, management teams, product marketers — for whom collaboration really counts. If tech companies really do “live and die by talent,” as CEO Marissa Mayer has said, she better hope Yahoo’s best and brightest aren’t too wedded to working from home.

What do you think of Yahoo’s ban on working from home? Good idea or bad? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Read also:

Let’s give Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer a break

When maternity leave doesn’t mean ‘out of office’

Our brightest female graduates are still at a disadvantage

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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