Telecommuting boo-hoos at Yahoo!

California-based Yahoo and its CEO, Marissa Mayer, made quite the splash last week after announcing that the company was ending its policy of allowing employees to work from home. The social mediaverse lit up with criticism against the company, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson called the move “perplexing” and “a backwards step.”

Is there a method to the madness?

Yahoo’s move definitely goes against the grain. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, 85 of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” allow telecommuting. At least five of those are similarly situated technology companies, such as Cisco, where 90% of the workforce telecommutes. Telecommuting is seen as family friendly, allowing busy employees the flexibility to meet the demands of work and families. As Branson pointed out, telecommuting also reflects a work culture where employees are trusted and productivity is valued more than time at one’s desk. In turn, telecommuting pays dividends in recruitment, retention, and productivity.

Yahoo’s move is counter to employee expectations and industry trends. In fact, in an industry that depends on recruiting the best talent, isn’t Yahoo risking its competitive standing? Isn’t the company providing an incentive for its best talent to exit its doors or for talented recruits to never walk through in the first place? After all, this is Silicon Valley, where companies constantly look for ways to find perks that will bring in or retain talent. For example in 2012, Evernote offered housecleaning. Facebook offered new parents $4,000. Stanford University’s School of Medicine experimented with providing in-home dinner delivery for doctors. Yahoo expects to compete by taking away a workplace perk?

Sometimes, a reboot is necessary

Workplace perks must further a business goal. Perks must minimize personal distractions and reduce other demands on employees’ time so employees can focus on meeting the organization’s objectives. If an organization is not realizing the expected benefits, a policy has to be limited or perhaps temporarily revoked. In the wake of Yahoo’s decision, former employees spoke out that the company’s culture was dysfunctional, that people took advantage of the telecommuting policy. The company’s memo also alluded to speed and quality being affected by employees working at home. Rather than take a piecemeal approach to address the problems, the company decided to pull everyone back. This way, everyone is treated the same.


It should be noted that Yahoo is not removing all workplace flexibility by revoking the telecommuting option. The company memo mentioned that employees should use their best judgment to take care of emergencies. “Professional hours” (taking time off to take care of personal matters but still getting the work done) are likely going to continue and would need to be available for busy exempt employees. Further, the telecommuting ban may have to bend if an employee requires a reasonable accommodation in light of a disability.

However, the company may pay a price in the short term. It may lose some candidates and some personnel who do not agree with the policy. But it could prove to be a short-term loss. Employees who want to see the company succeed will understand the reasons for the change and will appreciate reaching goals more quickly. Perhaps the employees who leave will be ones the company needed to shed, and this change will encourage them to find a more suitable environment. The risk, of course, is that the best employees will leave while those who cannot leave will stay. Further, those who stay by default may continue to produce poorly, they may drain morale, and Yahoo could experience an increase in employee discipline issues.   

If the productivity and workplace culture problems are resolved, Yahoo should allow telecommuting in the future. Telecommuting provides clear advantages and benefits for employees and can boost productivity, recruiting, and retention for the company. However, the present does not appear to be the right time for the company, and Yahoo might as well start the process over.

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