Yahoo! Ditches Telecommuting, And A Lot of People Are Upset

The decision brings up a 2000 Boston College study on flexible work arrangements.

The decision by Yahoo! CEO, ex-Googler, and new mom Marissa Mayer has become the latest in a series of hot button issues that seem to trail her wherever she goes. In an internal memo published yesterday by Kara Swisher at All Things Digital, Yahoo!’s HR staff announced the end of their extremely popular work-from-home program, enraging employees who had been hired under the assumption that they’d have the flexibility forever. “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” the memo reads. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Mayer is hoping to bring the Silicon Valley breed of “this-job-is-your-life” mentality to Yahoo!’s offices, and has already made steps to emulate Google offices by providing free food and smartphones to employees. Much has already been made of the decision, and the backlash has been fierce: “Sometimes it seems that Mayer has to go out of her way to prove that she is more male than most men!” noted Ellen Galinsky, the head of the Families and Work Institute at the Bank Street College of Education, over at the Daily Beast. (How progressive of her to say so.)

But the facts are there: A 2000 study from the Boston College Center for Work & Family found that 70 percent of managers and 86 percent of employees reported that flexible work arrangements have a “positive or very positive impact on productivity,” while 65 percent of managers and 87 percent of employees reported a “positive or very positive impact on quality of work” as result of having that flexibility. That same study found that 76 percent of managers and 80 percent of workers said that having flexible work arrangements would have a “positive effect on retention.”

Of course, it’s important to note that in all of those stats, the positive percentages on the part of the workers outranked those of the managers, and that’s the element worth considering in this context. Already, former Yahoo! staffers have anonymously applauded Mayer’s decision, telling Business Insider and the Huffington Post that the culture of working from home is so prevalent that there are apparently “WHF” magnets for sale in the company store. “People [were] slacking off like crazy, not being available, spending a lot of time on non-Yahoo! projects,” one source told BI. It’s a “layoff that’s not a layoff,” a move that they say is designed to help cut costs by whittling down a workforce that’s become bloated and lazy.

Still, in the context of the ongoing discussion about re-evaluating work/life balance in the current economy, Mayer’s decision feels like a huge blow. Her desire to create a cultural shift at Yahoo! stems from her focus on innovation, but her decision seems antiquated, and it raises an interesting question about whether innovation and productivity can exist alongside each other in corporate life. From a New York Times piece on her decision:

Studies show that people who work at home are significantly more productive but less innovative, said John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University who runs a human resource advisory firm.

“If you want innovation, then you need interaction,” he said. “If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.”

It seems that this step is more a move to help steer a ship that’s moved largely off course back into safer waters. But one can’t help but wonder whether such decisions will sink her in the end.