Working from home doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing approach
Yahoo's new CEO, Marissa Mayer, knows how to stir up a storm.
She announced the other day that she would be ending her company's policy of allowing employees to work from home and instead would require them to be physically in the office to do their work.
As an online company, the response was like a bomb going off, not only from employees affected by the change but also for advocates of a new era where people can create their own work schedules and work from anyplace via the Internet.
She was seen as stabbing those dependent on telecommuting and working from home – often working mothers – in the back. Some also saw it as a return to the rigid kind of work rules of 50 years ago and an ironic rejection of the online environment on which Yahoo depends for its existence.
As someone who has and does work from home and also someone who has managed other workers for many years – including ones who work out of the office – I have seen this issue up close and sometimes struggled with it.
It is not a simple issue. For some operations, it is necessary that work be done out of the office without visual oversight.
Reporters are a good example. Being out of the office gathering the news and sometimes writing it out of the office are just part of a day's work. But they also spend time in the office working. Newspaper advertising sales people also often are out of the office much of the time talking with clients. That is where much of their work must be done. And then there are the “freelancers” who are not officially employees and therefore not in the office but provide services from outside as needed. At the same time, many other newspaper people must be in the office to perform their jobs.
All those situations generally work well and meet the needs of the company, although at times certain kinds of parameters need to be established so there is a good level of performance.
In the case of Yahoo, however, the issue seems to be employees who do all their work outside the office without any internal involvement. They truly are doing their work remotely without routine person-to-person contact with their fellow workers or managers. That is a situation that I have long doubted is a good idea – at least for regular employees rather than occasional ones who have no need to be there.
There is tremendous value in workers interacting with their fellow workers in a workplace environment. It builds camaraderie and a sense of shared purpose and goals. It also makes sharing priorities and goals easier and gives a sense of communal acceptance. That just cannot happen when some workers are separated from the others.
It also, frankly, makes life easier for managers who have a responsibility to their companies to ensure maximum productivity and useful interaction between team members. Managers need to interact with their regular workers just as much as workers need to interact with each other. It encourages an easier sharing of information.
As someone who has worked from home, I also have an understanding of the distractions that take place, as I have a feeling Mayer also does. It detracts from the concentration that is sometimes needed, especially if someone is doing it on a full-time basis. It has to impact productivity, although those who favor work-at-home situations probably consider that heresy.
Mayer, who is trying to turn around the troubled Yahoo operation, clearly decided her company needs all hands on deck to get it done and that couldn't happen with people working from home. In the end, I think she will come up with some kind of policy that combines the two types of work to fit the needs of a particular job. That is the middle path that other companies have successfully adopted.
It doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing approach. There is room for the work-at-home approach (likely combined with some time in the physical workplace) that combines the unique circumstances of the Internet era with the realities of the traditional workplace.