Business

Not allowing telecommuting is a huge mistake

Marissa Mayer has made a huge mistake in deciding not to allow Yahoo employees to work remotely. The move, though perhaps well-intentioned, will leave the company unable to attract and retain top talent. It will also saddle the company with bitter former telecommuters stuck traveling to an office while they attempt to find a new job at a more enlightened company.

The idea of having all your workers in one place has some merit, but Yahoo is not a startup with a handful of employees all working out of one office. As of the fourth quarter of 2012, Yahoo, according to its investor relations website, had more than 11,000 employees. And, as you might imagine, these employees do not all work in one room, one office building, or even one country. Yahoo, according to its media relations website, currently has officesin Europe, the Asia, Latin America, Canada, and in multiple locations around the United States.

“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,” Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s human resources chief, wrote in an internal memo first reported on by blogger Kara Swisher of AllThingsD. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.”

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That idea might make sense if Yahoo was 25 people working out of one building. Instead, the company is a sprawling global organization with people all around the world. Physical proximity, of course, has its benefits, but with modern connectivity tools, it’s possible to be connected to your coworkers without sitting next to them.

I know this first hand as I spent last year working for Microsoft on a project based in Bellevue, Wash., with a team in India and a handful of people working from home on the East Coast. Even my coworkers based in a big newsroom in Bellevue would often work from home as traffic and family concerns sometimes made that the more productive choice.

I worked alone in my basement, but thanks to readily available communication tools, I was rarely actually alone. I often had an open voice channel to multiple coworkers and my mornings were spent in an ongoing text chat with my colleague in India. Meetings often involved multiple video screens, and there were even days when we virtually ate lunch together to build team unity, share ideas, and generally connect as coworkers.

According to multiple media outlets Mayer’s policy has no loopholes and will require all workers to be in an office. “Hundreds of staffers — including those who work from home one or two days a week — will have to decide if they want to start showing up every day at the office or be out of a job.”

Because of my former employer’s liberal work-from-home policy, Microsoft was able to attract and hold onto top talent. Without similar flexibility, I would think that any good that comes from Mayer’s policy will be offset and then some by talented folks leaving Yahoo for more flexible employers.

Ideas and inspiration do come out of impromptu lunches and unexpected hallway interactions. Finding ways to encourage those spontaneous moments makes sense, but, there are ways to encourage the flow of ideas without resorting to mandating everyone work in an office at all times.

Products like Microsoft’s Lync allow coworkers to see when their colleagues are online so they can chat, speak on the “phone,” or even videoconference with multiple locations. Skype, Google Hangouts, and AOL Instant Messenger also offer similar capabilities for free.

Being connected simply no longer requires someone to be physically present. Of course, maintaining that connection remotely can be a challenge, but good management can build a global team that operates like its working out a shared, open office.

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