Yahoo Controversy: What Counts Is How Your Telecommuting Affects Your Colleagues, Researcher Says

Don Tennant

The uproar surrounding Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to end the option for employees to work from home is starting to blow over, just as Mayer predicted it would. So now that the dust has settled, it makes sense to consider the extent to which people like me, who have vocally opposed the decision, might have overreacted.

First of all, my understanding is nobody really knows exactly how Yahoo employees currently working from home will be affected, or exactly how the policy will be implemented. The statement that was made in the memo that went out to all Yahoo employees wasn’t all that explicit:

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.

That was it, and to my knowledge, Mayer hasn’t publicly clarified what constitutes “work-from-home arrangements.” Are we talking strictly about employees who work from home full-time? One day a week? Two days a week? Is it still OK to work from home two or three days a month simply because stuff happens and that flexibility makes life easier? Nobody really seems to know.

I had the opportunity to talk about all of this with Ben Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, and author of the forthcoming book, “People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us about the Future of Work.” According to Waber, Mayer got it right.

For starters, Waber said, what needs to be considered is not only the impact of telecommuting on the individual working from home, but the impact on the individual’s colleagues:

If you look at the data, there’s been a lot of research on how much people telecommute and how that relates to their individual performance and job satisfaction—and also, importantly, the satisfaction and performance of the people they work with. Essentially, once you start getting beyond one day a week working from home, there starts to be a real impact on the people that you work with, particularly in fields that are dealing with more complex stuff. … It’s one thing if you always work from home and you may be less productive, but it doesn’t affect the people you work with—it may not be such a big deal. But the issue is that this sets a cultural precedent—I know that at Yahoo it was pretty endemic that, for example, on Fridays no one would be in the office, so you would have that cultural effect. But also, when you think about these dependencies and about how your communication with other people impacts them, that’s really what the story’s about—it’s about a social story.

I fully agreed that it’s a social story. That being the case, I asked Waber what he would say to a mom who really needs the flexibility of working from home at least a couple of days a week in order to juggle everything she needs to juggle, if she could now no longer do that. Waber said a lot of it comes down to lifestyle choices:

For people who joined Yahoo thinking it was a certain kind of company, they got a raw deal. There’s no way around it—if they joined Yahoo and it was the kind of company where you could work from home all the time, it really stinks for them. You would hope that Yahoo would phase this in slowly. That being said, there are certain lifestyle choices that people have to make. For certain types of careers, they are very collaborative, and despite advances in communications technology, we’re still not at the point where we’re replicating face-to-face.

One of the reasons this has become a larger issue is because people are couching it as a women’s issue. But I think that’s actually being unfair to women, because first of all, there’s lots of data showing that if you’re not in the workplace meeting with your colleagues, you’re less productive. So if you’re offering this as a program explicitly for women, you’re essentially making them less productive, and they’re going to advance more slowly in their careers. If you have women who need to have more flexible schedules because they need to take care of their kids, my question is, what are the fathers doing? For example, my wife is in Switzerland this week, so I have to drive four hours a day to get my son to daycare and back—but it’s something that I just have to do. So it’s an egalitarian issue, and more of a societal thing and a lifestyle choice that people have to think about.

I wanted to get Waber’s thoughts on the Yahoo decision being made and conveyed as a blanket edict coming down from the CEO, and whether that was a decision that’s better made at a managerial level closer to the employees who are affected. He said it depends on how the policy is implemented:

There’s certainly a cultural decision in saying, “We want to have a culture where people are expected to be in the office.” That being said, if this were applied blindly, it definitely would be a bad decision. Think about it this way: If you have something really stressful happening at home, like your kid is sick, if you’re not allowed to deal with that, you’re not going to be very effective at work, and you’re probably not going to like work as much. So the idea that a couple times a month, you should be able to work from home for whatever reason, that’s a very sensible thing. The data shows you’re still very effective—you don’t lose anything doing that. So if Yahoo applies it in such a way where there’s some sanity and some trust in the way people are using it, then it would work out fine. On the other hand, if you have a deadline, and the cable guy is coming, you know what? You can probably reschedule the cable guy. But again, if it’s something where there’s something serious going on at home, it really makes sense to stay home. I have no idea how it’s going to be implemented at Yahoo. But I think that’s really going to be the metric that they have to be evaluated on.

Waber had some intriguing insights about how co-location is especially important in the IT profession. I’ll share those insights in a subsequent post.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Mar 8, 2013 8:50 AM jake_leone jake_leone  says:
Luck is what you count on, if you expect serendipitous encounters to solve technical problems. Most software engineering issues are solved using these methods: 1 Debug the issue, get specifics to reproduce the problem (at least so you can communicate the issue) 2 Assign someone (so few managers do this) to be expert on the system. 24x7 on phone support. 3 Read the docs 4 Call support 5 Search the net get informed. 6 Get creative, find another way. Nothing about this method is "serendipitous". It requires that managers make leadership decisions, some will get mundane assignments learning a tool. So often I have seen managers leave tasks such as: - Installation - Setup - Configuration Up to the whole team. The whole team then repeats the same mistakes, over and over, wasting valuable engineering hours. Engineering issues are technical, they require a computer presence. Nothing beats, seeing on screen, what exactly is done to make the issues occur. That only requires computer telepresence. Generally it is best to avoid retelling the issue, and just write down the reasons and convey that, in Email, proactively ensure a response. Serendipity is a fool's game. Reply

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