Yahoo's Work-at-Home Policy Is the Right Decision

Yahoo and CEO Marissa Mayer have taken a beating in the media for the company's recent ban on telecommuting, but creating a more collaborative startup mentality within the struggling tech giant is the right move, according to industry experts.

Yahoo and Marissa Mayer dominated the IT news cycle last week when a leaked internal memo from Jaqueline Reses, executive vice president of People and Development at Yahoo, outlined the company's plans to require all employees work at Yahoo's offices.

Picture of Yahoo's Headquarters

This decision has stirred wide debate with some calling it an affront to working parents, while others, such as Forbes, are claiming the move is an "epic fail."

Before we dig deeper into the controversy, let's take a look at the exact wording from the Yahoo memo:

"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. [&] Beginning in June, we're asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration."

People from both inside and outside the tech sector have been chiming in with their thoughts--most painting Yahoo and Mayer in a negative light.

"It was very striking, how much of a PR storm this became. People really personalized it. Everyone I talked to has said, 'I can't imagine working there, it's a terrible thing.'" says Forrester Vice president and Principal Analyst J.P. Gownder.

[Related Story: Why Remote Offices Mean Better IT Teams]

While Mayer's most recent move has sparked outrage and debate, the reality is that it's not that big of a change or that uncommon for companies even in Silicon Valley. In a recent Forrester survey , 9,766 information workers (employed individuals who use a PC or mobile phone at least one hour per day for work) were asked about their work situations.

Of those nearly 10,000 workers, only 17 percent reported working from home two or more days a week. The takeaway is that working from home is not as mainstream a practice as everyone seems to think.

Mayer Just Trying to Solve Problems

If you take a step back a look at the situation without all the emotion and rhetoric, it becomes more evident that Mayer is trying to solve some of Yahoo's internal problems and refocus her company as a place of technology innovation.

"If you're in an a creative endeavor, where you are trying to innovate your products set and it's a highly technical collaborative effort, you actually see all tech firms employing centers of excellence, bringing employees side-by-side," says Gownder.

David Foote of Foote Partners, a Florida-based firm that specializes in IT analysis and forecasting, expresses similar feelings, "When the heat is on, execs get nervous. There are many nervous execs out there right now; Marissa Meyer is one of them. She wants more control and she obviously feels that by moving people back into her physical sphere she will be more in control of the outcomes."

These well-publicized changes seem to be more of a push to solve some undetermined internal problems within Yahoo. For example, Forbes quotes a Yahoo insider as saying, "There were all these employees and nobody knew they were still at Yahoo." Other observers, such as Forrester's Gownder, have reported that some Yahoo employees who worked from home were starting their own businesses while being paid by Yahoo.

Why Yahoo Did It

What the real motivation is behind Mayer's dictum is difficult to know with any certainty. However, Forrester's Gownder offers some thoughts on why a company would choose to make a move like Yahoo has.

  • Worker malfeasance: When employees are remote, poorly managed and not on-task, a company might choose to bring some (or all) workers into offices.
  • Promoting innovation: Unlike achieving efficiency or productivity, innovation often requires teams of people to work together (this often applies to engineering or other technical functions, graphic design, architecture, and similar areas).
  • Vertical dependencies: Certain verticals such as healthcare--might require classes of workers to have known destinations (e.g., offices or hospitals) for compliance and security reasons.

Hey, It Works at Google

This telecommuting ban may also be an effort to draw on Mayer's background at Google to create a more collaborative and innovative environment. "Mayer comes from Google culture. Creative workers, engineers and research & development people working on technical projects often times need to do so in a large group effort. My guess is Mayer has now focused on very specific areas where she wants to see innovation at Yahoo and she's trying to deploy resources within that context to drive innovation. Innovation is different than productivity," says Gownder.

[Related Story: Yahoo CEO Mayer Checked VPN Logs Before Banning Home Working]

Yahoo is a struggling tech giant that needs to right the ship. Perhaps getting everyone under one roof with more of a startup mentality could be part of the answer. After all, companies like Google, AOL and others provide perks like free dining, on-site daycare and in-house gyms in an effort to keep people in the office because they believe that these casual interactions yield some great collaborative situations.

"Telecommuting was a perfect solution to a set of problems that existed at one time. But times have changed. My personal observation is that telecommuting is now working against many employers. Not all, but many employers," says Foote.

Whether it's the right move for Yahoo, of course, is yet to be seen. Could it have been handled better? Probably. As a whole, the industry appears to be moving towards more work-at-home situations not less, according to the experts.

"Companies have to figure out, 'how do we manage this?' The ones that are able to manage effectively and have a productive, remote and distributed workforce are going to have an advantage, specifically in markets where getting talent is difficult," says Gownder.

Rich Hein is a senior writer for CIO.com. He covers IT careers. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

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