Feb. 26: Since Marissa Mayer became chief executive of Yahoo, she has been working hard to get the Internet pioneer off its deathbed and make it an innovator once again.
She started with free food and new smartphones for every employee, borrowing from the playbook of Google, her employer until last year. Now, though, Yahoo has made a surprise move: abolishing its work-at-home policy and ordering everyone to work in the office.
A memo explaining the policy change, from the company’s human resources department, says face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more collaborative culture — a hallmark of Google’s approach to its business.
In trying to get back on track, Yahoo is taking on one of the country’s biggest workplace issues: whether the ability to work from home, and other flexible arrangements, leads to greater productivity or inhibits innovation and collaboration. Across the country, companies like Aetna, Booz Allen Hamilton and Zappos.com are confronting these trade-offs as they compete to attract and retain the best employees.
Bank of America, for example, which had a popular programme for working remotely, decided late last year to require employees in certain roles to come back to the office. Employees, especially younger ones, expect to be able to work remotely, analysts say. And over all the trend is towards greater workplace flexibility.
Still, said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray & Christmas, an outplacement and executive coaching firm, “A lot of companies are afraid to let their workers work from home some of the time or all of the time because they’re afraid they’ll lose control.”
Studies show that people who work at home are significantly more productive but less innovative, said John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University who runs a human resource advisory firm.
“If you want innovation, then you need interaction,” he said. “If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.” Reflecting these tensions, Yahoo’s policy change has unleashed a storm of criticism from advocates for workplace flexibility who say it is a retrograde approach, particularly for those who care for young children or ageing parents outside work.
Their dismay is heightened by the fact that they hoped Mayer, who became chief executive at 37 while pregnant with her first child, would make the business world more hospitable for working parents. “The irony is that she has broken the glass ceiling, but seems unwilling for other women to lead a balanced life in which they care for their families and still concentrate on developing their skills and career,” said Ruth Rosen, a professor emerita of women’s history at the University of California.
But not only women take advantage of workplace flexibility policies. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, nearly as many men telecommute.
The bureau says 24 per cent of employed Americans report working from home at least some hours each week.
And 63 per cent of employers said last year that they allowed employees to work remotely, up from 34 per cent in 2005, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute, a non-profit group studying the changing work force.
During the recession, the institute expected employers to demand more face time, but instead found that 12 per cent increased workplace flexibility.