Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's ban on telecommuting sparks a firestorm
Feb 26, 2013 (San Jose Mercury News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer's decision to order telecommuting employees back to the office has sparked a passionate debate over the increasingly common practice of working from home.
Criticism from some workers, especially working parents, portrayed Mayer as abandoning a modern, enlightened approach to helping employees juggle conflicting demands. Supporters said she may have reason to shake things up at the once-vaunted Internet company, which earned a reputation in recent years for falling behind in both
innovation and competition.
The firestorm ignited Friday when Yahoo's human resources chief sent a memo announcing that all employees will be asked to work in company offices starting in June. The memo quickly leaked to a prominent tech news blog, All Things D.
It's an issue that resonates sharply in Silicon Valley, where companies like Google (GOOG), Cisco (CSCO) and others make Web-based software, videoconferencing systems and other high-tech tools that can help workers be productive at home. Yet some of Yahoo's biggest competitors, including Google and Facebook, have spent heavily to design work spaces that encourage in-person collaboration, while providing free meals and other amenities that make it easier for employees to spend long hours at the office.
When people ask how many Google employees telecommute, Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette told an Australian tech audience last week, he replies, "As few as possible."
Pichette explained, according to an account in the Sydney Morning Herald, that Google wants workers to talk informally over meals or coffee. "There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer, 'What do you think of this ' "
Google and Facebook allow employees to work from home, relying on the judgment of employees and their managers, according to sources at both companies, which declined to comment on Yahoo's policies. But both companies have said they see a benefit in the creative sparks that come with random meetings in corridors or cafeterias.
When Facebook moved into the former headquarters of Sun Microsystems, it remodeled the buildings to create open clusters of desks, as well as "living spaces" with couches and kitchen equipment, where workers can talk shop and trade ideas. Google has similar features in its buildings. And both Facebook and Google are famous for offering all kinds of free treats, from gourmet meals to massages and yoga sessions, for workers on their respective campuses.
Yahoo appears to be seeking the same kind of synergy. "We need to be working side-by-side," Yahoo human resources chief Jackie Reses wrote in her memo last week.
Reses cited the importance of "decisions and insights" that can arise from impromptu meetings. But in what some view as an indication that Yahoo's new boss isn't satisfied with telecommuters' performance, Reses added that "speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."
A Yahoo spokeswoman declined to comment, so it's unclear how many workers will be affected, but the company has not disputed the memo's authenticity.
Mayer, a former Google executive, has previously taken steps to improve work conditions at Yahoo, giving employees new smartphones and providing free meals, among other amenities. But critics said the Reses memo seemed ham-handed and oppressive.
"A desperate move by a desperate company that has trouble trusting their employees," Stewart Bauman, who works in tech but not at Yahoo, wrote in a post on the Mercury News Facebook page.
Others said they saw hypocrisy by Mayer, who is both a new mother and a wealthy CEO -- and who used her own funds to install a nursery next to her office, according to All Things D, which noted that other employees don't have that option.
Experts warned the memo could backfire. "The question is whether this move will result in an exodus among the company's top talent," John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas, said in an email noting that "many Silicon Valley tech firms are battling each other to attract and retain the best talent."
Surveys show telecommuting is increasing across the United States and elsewhere. In a paper published last week, Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom described a recent nine-month study of a Chinese online travel firm, CTrip, which found call-center employees were more productive and performed at a higher level when allowed to work from home.
But Bloom drew a distinction between call-center workers and higher-skilled professionals, such as executives or software developers. He said the latter can benefit from the flexibility of working at home but also from collaboration in the office.
"It's typical for high-end employees to work from home one or two days a week," he said. "They get time away to think and time to be creative and to have a work-life balance. But it's not helpful to have them permanently absent from the workplace."
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.
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