Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer's decision to order
telecommuting employees back to the office has sparked a
passionate debate over the growing practice of working from
Advocates for working parents criticised Mayer for abandoning
what they view as a modern, enlightened approach to
accommodating workers' needs.
Since it was announced last week, the move has even drawn
fire from Sir Richard Branson, the British travel and media
mogul, who said on Twitter that he was "perplexed" by the
move and wrote in his blog that it "seems a backward step in
an age when remote working is easier and more effective than
But others say the order's not entirely surprising, given
Mayer's stated goal of shaking things up at a once-vaunted
Internet company that had gained a reputation in recent years
for being sluggish and behind the curve of innovation and
Plenty of Silicon Valley companies allow employees to work
from home, using the latest in cloud-based software,
videoconferencing and other high-tech tools.
But some of Yahoo's biggest competitors, including Facebook
and Google, have spent vast sums to make their worksites
comfortable and fun, providing free gourmet meals,
dry-cleaning and other personal services that make it easier
for workers to spend long hours at the office.
Google and Facebook have no formal policies on working from
home, according to company representatives. Both companies
allow it, yet both have also said they see a huge benefit in
the creative sparks that ignite when engineers and other
workers chat in hallways, talk shop in the cafeteria or even
lean across each others' desks at work.
"There is something magical about spending time together,
about noodling on ideas," said Google's chief financial
officer, Patrick Pichette, in a recent talk with an
Australian tech audience that was reported in the Sydney
Morning Herald. He described the number of Googlers who
telecommute as being "as few as possible."
That's the reason cited by Yahoo human resources chief Jackie
Reses, in a company memo that was leaked Friday to the tech
news blog All Things D. A Yahoo spokesperson declined comment
on what she called an internal matter, but the company has
not disputed the memo's authenticity.
"We need to be working side-by-side," Reses wrote in the
memo, citing the importance of "communication and
collaboration" as well as the "decisions and insights" that
can arise from impromptu meetings.
"Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from
home," Reses added, before announcing that Yahoo will ask all
employees to work in company offices, starting in June.
Mayer, a former Google executive, has previously announced
steps to improve work conditions at Yahoo by upgrading
employees' phones and offering free meals, among other
amenities. But the Reses memo sparked an uproar on tech blogs
and social networking sites, where some critics said it
seemed ham-handed and oppressive.
"A desperate move by a desperate company that has trouble
trusting their employees," wrote Stewart Bauman, who works in
tech but not at Yahoo, in a post on the San Jose Mercury
News's Facebook page.
Some saw further signs of a crackdown in Reses's statement
that "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." And some experts warned the memo
"The question is whether this move will result in an exodus
among the company's top talent," said John Challenger, CEO of
the outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas, in an
email which added: "At a time when many Silicon Valley tech
firms are battling each other to attract and retain the best
talent, the decision by Yahoo Inc. to end its telecommuting
program may prove to be shortsighted."
Surveys show that telecommuting is increasing across the
United States and elsewhere. In a paper published just last
week, Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom described a
recent nine-month study of workers at 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.
The downside, he said, is that workers who performed just as
well as their in-office counterparts were less likely to get
promotions. In part, he said that's likely because they
weren't getting as much personal "face-time" with their
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
"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
Referring to Mayer's decision, Bloom added, "I can understand
why she's doing it, but it seems extreme."
Given the modern tools that let people be productive at home,
he said, companies should let skilled employees work at home
part of the time, and see how it goes.
"It's a privilege that can be abused," he said, "but if they
continue to perform well, let them continue."