Yahoo Inc. told employees last week that they may no longer work from home or other remote locations. The announcement came as a surprise in an industry known for non-traditional work arrangements and generous employee perks. According to the U.S. Census, the number of people working from home has increased steadily, with almost 10 percent of the workforce working from home at least one day a week. We’ll discuss flexible work programs: Do they increase or hurt productivity?

John Roberts, John H. Sully professor emeritus of economics, strategic management and international business at the Stanford Graduate School of Business
Shane Mac, director of products at Zaarly
Joan Williams, distinguished professor of law and founding director of the Center for Work Life Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law
Kara Swisher, co-executive editor of All Things D, a website devoted to news, analysis and opinion on technology, the Internet and media

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    In this computer age isn’t there a way to tract employees performance if they don’t come to an on site building daily? Whatever happened to video conference calls? And how many Yahoo workers live hours away from the Yahoo campus? Dislike even thinking of the added traffic those folks will create.

    Not to mention I read in the S F Chronicle over the week end that the new CEO Marissa Mayer hopes some workers will leave Yahoo which will help Yahoo’s bottom line. What happens if none do?

  • Bob Fry

    I telecommute one or two days a week to my job as a water resources engineer, doing studies using computer models. On the one hand, I can often get more done at home without the interruptions and distractions of work. On the other hand, it is better to walk down to the hall to see someone I need to, rather than send an email and wait a few hours for a reply to a simple question.

    I suspect the new policy at Yahoo is partly a ploy to reduce employee count without formal layoffs.

    • thucy

      good point, Bob. Though no doubt your employer isn’t playing fast and loose with the tax code, as some internet companies do.

      Is it true that Facebook does not pay state or federal income taxes, and received a $429 million refund? How do Yahoo and Google rate on tax compliance and tax loopholes?

      That’s the real meat of the story, not whether one wears slippers to work.

      • thucy–.php

        “…Facebook Inc. released its first “10-K” annual financial report since going public last year. Hidden in the report’s footnotes is an amazing admission: despite $1.1 billion in U.S. profits in 2012, Facebook did not pay even a dime in federal and state income taxes.

        Instead, Facebook says it will receive net tax refunds totaling $429 million.

        Facebook’s income tax refunds stem from the company’s use of a single tax break, the tax deductibility of executive stock options. That tax break reduced Facebook’s federal and state income taxes by $1,033 million in 2012, including refunds of earlier years’ taxes of $451 million.[1]

        But that’s not all of the stock-option tax breaks that Facebook generated from its initial public offering of stock (IPO). Facebook is also carrying forward another $2.17 billion in additional tax-option tax breaks for use in future years.[2]

        So in total Facebook’s current and future tax reductions from the stock options exercised in connection with its IPO will total $3.2 billion. That’s almost exactly what CTJ predicted last year, when Facebook first announced its IPO.[3]”

  • Tech Worker

    This sounds like an easy way for them to lay off employees without them calling it a layoff. I’m not sure what the reason is otherwise, since companies like Yahoo! already have people all over the planet, thus requiring communication through conference calls, instant messaging, etc.

    Sure, not everyone can work from home effectively, but it can be done well, especially with all the technology available. And it helps people who work well independently get some quiet space and focus on their work. Not everyone works well in an open-style office with frequent interactions/meetings (see Quiet by Susan Cain), despite the popularity of “Agile” style project teams, which aren’t really that effective or good for the product.

    I have a feeling Ms. Mayer will go back on this announcement, especially with all the backlash that followed.

  • Sathish Raju

    I always end up working more when working from home..right from the bed..missing my breakfast..working all thru the day in my pajama!

  • jurban

    I’m a consultant and I work from my home office every day. My work is entirely on a computer, and with instant messaging, Skype and email I’m fully connected to clients scattered around the globe. I’m extremely productive in this environment. Although, when interactions are highly planned via meetings, spontaneous discussions are rare and agenda-driven. My clients’ cultures are healthy, but I can see how companies with less-optimal cultures are handicapped by a lack of continuous, direct interactions. I think Yahoo has this need to restart its culture in this fast-moving industry.

  • Yikes, Kara Swisher is a challenging personality. Maybe she can be a little more friendly to Michael in the future.

    • thucy

      that’s right, if a female guest isn’t egregiously cheerful and deferential, but prefers to focus on what she reported, she is too “challenging”!

      • Cheryl

        No, Kara Swisher is a bully. If you’ve read her articles, they are mostly snarky, unhelpful pieces of negative commentary.

        • thanks for the backup.

        • thucy

          I can’t fairly judge her writing because I don’t read that section of WSJ – but based on her performance here, I think it’s a stretch to call her “rude.”
          I think what concerns me is the newfound expectation that all women reporters must be uncompromisingly upbeat – if she finds a product not up to par, is she not obliged to call it as she sees it? Isn’t that the role of a reporter?
          I really enjoy reading Thomas Frank in the WSJ. He’s overwhelmingly critical of thing that are overwhelmingly in need of criticism – but he’s male, so no one calls him out for telling the truth.
          When did my hometown become Stepford?

          • Monsieur Oblong

            I think what concerns me is your knee-jerk defense of her behavior merely because she’s a woman. I had the exact same reaction; I guess this makes me a closet sexist.

    • gabby101

      I thought she was rude as well.

      • thucy

        Perhaps our expectations have become skewed…? It’s not like when Norman Mailer threw a vodka tumbler at Gore Vidal, Or Billl Buckley got in a fistfight with I don’t remember who – Mailer again?

        if Swisher’s very ordinary level of plain talk seemed “rude”, I’d hate to think of what you thought of ACT UP, Bill Kunstler, Emma Goldman, the quite radical MLK and Harvey Milk, Thomas Paine, Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks, I.F. Stone, etc.

        It worries me that a formerly fearless and unconventional town has become Stepfordized.

        • gabby101

          I don’t have a problem with her being negative or direct, but you can do both and still be polite to your host. I think it’s ridiculous to compare someone’s behavior on a talk show discussing a half-dead company like Yahoo with the situation faced by someone like Rosa Parks.

          Thisl ady rubs me the wrong way – if you like her, than that’s your opinion and so goes it. To chastise someone for not sharing your opinion is “Stepford.”

  • Guest

    All employers, including universities and government offices are forcing employees to show up at work through their managers. Yahoo just happens to be in the news because it is done as a corporate policy. They do allow employees to work from home after hours and not pay for it.

  • camille cloutier

    Yahoo’s new policy is certainly unfortunate, but it sounds like Kara Swisher, who broke the story, doesn’t actually have much concrete information about the matter. She hasn’t spoken with anyone from Yahoo. She didn’t say what percent of the workforce is affected (I’ve heard from 1%). While I appreciate the general conversation about telecommuting and productivity, I wish this Forum coverage also delivered more concrete information regarding this specific event.

  • Guest

    Yahoo! is so broken. They have been underwhelming for years and I just don’t understand why they continue to make one blunder after another, a kind of tragic churn. This draconian move strikes me as a desperate effort at control. Yahoo! needs to completely reboot. They’ve become a well-thumbed magazine containing mostly advertising and mindless celebrity gossip that nobody wants to buy. I tend to avoid their sites and services and get depressed just riding the VTA light rail through their campus.

  • Lia Seth

    I have a disability that makes walking or standing painful, and my energy levels are often low. Being able to work from home means I can keep my job – and actually have a job – because otherwise, the number of days when I literally do not have the energy to walk out the front door (let alone walk down the stairs, let alone drive the 40 miles to my office safely, let alone socialize with coworkers and colleagues) would mean I could not hold a full-time job. By allowing me to WFH, my company is providing vital accessibility to me as a PWD.

    My job represents a big chunk of our household income, and I take that seriously. I do not “goof off” while working from home – sure, I may do a load of laundry or clean the kitchen while on the clock, but I’m still doing my job.

  • former Yahoo! xyz

    Yahoo! has offices all over the U.S. & the world, & many employees work closely with other employees across these offices. It doesn’t matter where you sit — you could be at home, in the Sunnyvale HQ, in Santa Monica, in New York, in London, in Bangalore. The idea that the best work gets done when you’re in the same office is silly — Mayer doesn’t realize how people really work at her own company.

  • Kimberlein

    As with all employee performance issues, the viability of telecommuting comes down to personal work ethic and the overall quality of the individual. Flexible policies should be a retention tactic designed to keep the best employees who want to work from home, and who can continue to be high performers in that setting. Yahoo is making a mistake by implementing a broad-swathing, one size fits all decision instead of getting rid of unproductive workers on an individual basis. Why are companies so afraid to separate the wheat from the chaff, and simply fire underperformers?

  • Guest

    While i personally prefer to work in the office (simply because i lack the ergonomic setup at home), I absolutely disagree with a sweeping “No telecommuting” policy in an effort to resolve something that is lacking in collaboration or productivity at the office. A policy like this needs an in depth look at what actually motivates people to stay home instead of coming to the office, what projects they are working on, and how accessible they are via email, phone and web conferencing. Better solutions are for specific units to have set days when all must be present in the office and have those days be meeting and brainstorming days. A company also has to ensure that there is a welcoming environment at work and some commuting incentives. Otherwise, while i do agree that it’s ultimate the employee’s responsibility to take it or leave it (because complaining constantly and not helping bring about change does nobody any favors) Yahoo will lose a lot of talent. And fast.

  • Jack P

    I completely agree that a ban on work from home is direct evidence that management is showing some incompetence.

    At my company, we are already judged by overall performance. We have eliminated measured vacation time, and the company goal is overall results. The under performers and serial vacationers are obvious and we all know who they are or they don’t exist.

    Yahoo should just lay off under performing people and and useless managers managing useless projects.

  • Tina S.

    Once a favorable work ethic for an employee is established, and there are clear metrics to measure productivity, then the telecommuting option is nice. It eliminates commute and many other stresses that can actually hinder productivity. Also People in the office often feel deserving of web-surfing. I bet at home there will be a greater sense of responsibility.

  • gabby101

    Workers that are unproductive at home are unproductive on campus as well. Flexible work arrangements will help you weed out lazy workers. When you see people in their seats at work, you assume they are working. When people are working away from campus, they must prove to you that they are working.

    • Leonidas

      Computer programmers talk about Design Patterns, or ways of doing things right. There are also many mismanagement patterns, or repeated ways of mismanaging that achieves some goal for a manager, but harms workers’ productivity and the company. I only have to look at Yahoo’s website for 30 seconds to see they are mismanaging and are most likely fraught with mismanagement patterns.

  • Tom Levy

    If I heard correctly, Marissa Mayer paid to have a nursery built at her office for her own child. If childcare is one of the main problems facing parents who have to commute, including the CEO, why not provide childcare at Yahoo’s offices for all employees, not just for the CEO? In fact, why not provide this perk to employees everywhere. Seems like the obvious and most humane solution.

    • Tom — not picking on you — I’ve heard the childcare issue raised from several others but this just happens to be a good place to respond to this. My argument is that, in general, working from home does not replace or minimize the need for childcare. I have worked from home for close to two decades and much of the time have needed another adult present when my children are at home. When I combine work with caring for children in any way my productivity suffers. In these instances, my work days often extend into the late evening after kids are settled and my youngest is now 12.

      I am in general a strong proponent of telecommuting, but most of the parenting-related advantages that I experience from a home-based office have more to do with flexibility. That has been for me the indispensable aspect of working from home.

  • Artie Moffa

    A lot of companies seem to be unaware of the importance of training with regards to telecommuting. It’s not a proposition so easy as “sit at the kitchen table and answer the phone when the boss calls.” A company that offers telecommuting should invest time in training employees (on site and off-site) with regards to focus, expectations, reporting procedures, and the evaluation of work that gets done.

    From the time we start kindergarten, we are trained in the fine points of getting up in the morning, going somewhere to learn, socialize, and work alongside other people. We check in with our teacher, we adhere to schedules, projects have defined beginnings and ends. It is naive to think that most workers can just “figure out” how the work environment should translate to the home office (or corner coffee shop).

  • Mood_Indigo

    As usual, Michael invites guests who are least qualified to gauge the impact of a specific action. First we have the advocate of telecommuting masquerading as a reporter gushing up a torrent of blah blah. Then we have an “expert” who studied telecommuting at a Chinese travel agency which Michael, in his wisdom, says should be a similar case to Yahoo.

    Bottom line: Yahoo has a new leader and upper management who want to re-boot the system. This is a step to re-evaluate contributions of individual worker and those of mid-level managers. Maybe this move will get rid of some deadwood and some unfortunate, yet productive, workers. This is a business, not a charity. If they are going to be well run, they will know which employees are most valuable and will reward them.

    I won’t be surprised that the star performers (mostly engineers) will be quietly allowed high level of attendance flexibility on an individual basis.

    The whining about taking care of kids is unreal. My wife and I have been raising two kids while both working full time. Our jobs have significant flexibility but not amenable to telecommuting. I suspect this is the case for the large majority of professionals. It’s time for this folks to discover daycare and after-school care.

  • Anupam Bagchi

    I guess the problems with Yahoo had become so severe that there was a need to first ‘clean up’ the house and then bring back in ‘convenience’ in a controlled fashion. It reminds me of the time when music piracy had become so rampant in the early 2000s (think Napster) that the recording industry had to ban all music downloads first before bringing in DRM embedded music (think advent of iPods). Similarly, this is just step one of house cleaning for Yahoo, the next step will come a while later.

  • llebleu

    My entire company, oDesk, works from home every Tuesday. We were built on the idea that you should be able to work where and when you want…and we live by that ideal.

    So today, I started work at 7:30am (instead of spending an hour in a car), and will continue working through the hour in the evening I would have been on the road. We Skype each other regularly for quick communication and it is understood that we will be available throughout the day for meetings, etc…

    It’s sad that Mrs. Mayer has used a sledgehammer where a scalpel would have sufficed. Working remotely is a huge productivity — and MORALE! — booster for companies with the vision to embrace and understand it.

    And now…back to work!

  • jurban

    I think the discussion has to consider the professional maturity of the employee as well as their ability to self-manage themselves. Employees that are not yet skilled in self management will be unproductive and probably demoralized by working from home. Mature employees that are self-motivated and demonstrate their ability to deliver should be the only candidates for a WFH option.

  • JimmyOo

    I guess Yahoo would like to fine tune this layoff in policy-change clothing, but needs to go with biggest, fastest bang for the buck.

  • Yahoo became a bloated tech company with no innovation that cannibalized smaller tech companies. I’m sure they’ve have a bunch of old hires from their heyday who do practically nothing and are happy in their job security. Mayer just wants to shake out the chaff. This is an internal Yahoo matter, because in general, telecommuting rocks.

  • Monsieur Oblong

    Disclaimer: I do not work for Yahoo! and never have. I know a few people who have worked there in the past, though I doubt any of them still do.
    However, a decade in tech in the Valley has clearly shown Yahoo! to be a dying company. Talent tends not to go to dying companies. The job market in technology is EXTREMELY strong right now, and Yahoo! has undoubtedly had a very challenging time hiring top talent, unless they pay them ungodly above-market wages. Those most likely to work at a dying company are the clock punchers. I can think of no better way to collect an easy paycheck in this industry than to get a job at a big former great like Yahoo! and then get a telecommuting arrangement.
    This is not to malign any specific employees; I’d say the same thing about telecommuters for a company like IBM, or even Google, which is now large enough that it’s quite possible to get ‘lost’ in the system.
    I don’t necessarily think Marissa Mayer should have taken this broad brush step, but I do not doubt that telecommuters for Yahoo! are one of the least productive contingents in the industry, on average. It’s a bummer that this broad move will harm those who truly are productive.

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Interesting piece in todays SF Chronicle which notes ‘It turns out that many current Yahoos agree with Mayer’s decision’

  • Neb

    On tight schedule, working one/two days at home per week is more productive.

    1. Save 1.5 hour commute

    2. Gas save for environment

    3. More focus and less disctraction (coworker has lots of personal calls)

  • Cheryl

    Since when does someone who delights in kicking companies when they’re down become an expert on said company? Kara Swisher does not work at Yahoo, nor does she accurately report on what is actually happening there, This whole thing has been taken out of context, and blown out of proportion.

  • I’m hearing a lot of talk that when telecomuting you aren’t able to get as much casual interaction with colleagues, which is important for sparking innovative ideas. However, with telepresence robots like the Beam or the Vgo, you can go where the casual conversation is and be very close to actually being there in terms of colleague interaction.

  • In my experience, a lot of people who “work” at home start their day at 11 AM and call it a day at 3 PM, with a 1 hour lunch break.
    Granted, people who are not motivated won’t do good work even if your force them to drive in.

    But, overall, I would say bad management is why bad employees exist. Always.

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