Boo! to Yahoo! no-telecommuting edict

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February 26, 2013, 7:28 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Cambridge/Chestnut Hill, Mass.) - America’s most famous working Mom may now be America’s most-vilified boss.

Weeks after charging back in to work just days after giving birth, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer stunned her staff this week by declaring come June, there is no more telecommuting from home allowed and everyone must come work in a Yahoo office.

As the sixth CEO in barely five years for a company many call bloated and reeling under competition from Google and other Internet search engines and content and e-mail providers, Mayer’s move is being called by some a necessary jolt, and a way short of mass layoffs to shake loose under-motivated workers who may be sticking with Yahoo just for the work-at-home perk.

But backlash against the policy has been swift, and nationwide, with many saying it’s an especially bad signal to be sent by a working mother who should be championing, not shutting down, one of the most popular ways for parents to juggle family and work and maximize their productive contribution to corporate life

“It’s moving backwards in terms of work-family issues, and it's also a pretty regressive move in terms of just general business leadership,’’ Boston College management professor Brad Harrington, who heads BC’s Center for Work and Family, said in an interview Tuesday. “It seems very out of synch with a lot of what our research says and a lot of what the most successful companies are doing these days.’’

Studies generally find about 1 in 10 working Americans regularly log a substantial number of their weekly work hours from home through Internet and phone connections or meetings outside the workplace. Many studies show telecommuting time has been growing, and most companies and organizations expect their employees to put in more hours at home and outside the office – and many are counting on work-from-home arrangements to reduce their need for expensive, often underutilized office space.

Harrington – who once worked a management job for Silicon Valley technology giant Hewlett-Packard while based in Boston and travelling to California for two weeks each month while his kids were very young – said Mayer’s telecommuting ukase was an especially strange move for the head of an Internet company.

“She's in a technology company, and she's running a technology company. Technology companies are usually on the vanguard of these kinds of virtual workplaces,’’ Harrington said. “It's very unusual for a technology company to say, ‘Well, if you're working remotely, you're really not connected to the office.'"

In a widely leaked e-mail to Yahoo! employees, Mayer’s top human-relations aide explained the policy change by saying: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side … We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."

In Kendall Square, Cambridge, Patrick Sweeney, CEO of social-media marketing startup dwinQ, said Mayer’s edict makes sense to him. “I don't think it'll be well received by workers, but I think those are the type of workers they probably don't want to have around anyways,’’ Sweeney said.

At dwinQ, Sweeney said he employs five full-time telecommuters, and five more people who regularly work from home, but requires they all get regular office face time.

“Culturally, we make sure they come in every couple of weeks, so they can be with the team, go out to lunch,’’ and participate in other face-to-face, real-time exchanges, Sweeney said. “That's so important from a cultural perspective, to have people in to collaborate and share ideas, and you really have to be in the office and you have to be with a team.’’

While there have been a profusion of books and white papers and management seminars on making telecommuting work, the fact remains it is very popular among Americans. Collaboration software maker Wrike.com recently surveyed more than 1,000 technology professionals and team members and managers, finding 54 percent said they'd be willing to give up their company-paid cellphone in exchange for being able to telecommute, 31 percent said they'd be willing to take less paid vacation, and 25 percent even said they would take a salary cut if that was what it took to be able to work from home.

Harrington’s academic center closely studies over 80 big corporations work-life policies and practices. In keeping with the adage that if you want to get something done, give the job to a busy person, Harrington said the center’s research has consistently found a clear correlation between who are the top performers in an organization – and who are the people most interested in work-from-home flexibility, saying the same kinds of people who are committed to being good parents or caregivers or community-minded volunteers, not surprisingly, tend to be committed company workers, too.

“People who are high-energy, they're talented, they're the kind of people who are in demand within the workplace -- they're also the people who are just are the kind of people who are going home trying to be engaged with their children, coaching, being involved in community activities and so forth’’ and holding those as important personal priorities, Harrington said. “They're high-energy and high-engagement kinds of individuals.’’

For Yahoo!, the question still to be answered: How much does it lose in talent and round-the-clock productivity from its new policy, and how much does it gain from keeping its most committed workers and getting more collaboration and brainstorming inspirations from having them spend more time together, in person.

With videographer Kevin Krisak

Tags: Peter Howe, Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer, work-from-home
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