The death of work at home?

Yahoo calls employees back to office, cites issues with communication, collaboration
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/26/2013

In February, Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer shocked employers worldwide when she issued an internal memo to her 11,500 employees banning telecommuting.

“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together,” said the memo, attributed to HR head Jacqueline Reses, which was widely leaked online.

Several unnamed ex-employees told the website Business Insider that a largely remote workforce at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo led to “people slacking off like crazy, not being available and spending a lot of time on non-Yahoo projects.”

Mayer, according to the website, consulted metrics around the company’s virtual private network (VPN) logs and found that employees working remotely were not checking in enough, so she decided to implement the ban — which takes effect in June.

Mayer is not alone — one week after her decision, Minneapolis-based Best Buy announced it was terminating the work-from-home program for its 4,000 non-store employees in the United States.

Only one-quarter of bosses feel employees are more productive when working remotely, according to a March 2012 survey by Microsoft Canada of 642 bosses. The biggest pet peeves are the inability to talk face-to-face (49 per cent), a lack of focus (26 per cent), lack of accountability (22 per cent) and the belief employees are doing less work (22 per cent).

Yahoo’s letter said communication and collaboration take a hit when employees are not working side-by-side. In analyzing data from a software company, Ben Waber, president and CEO of management services firm Sociometric Solutions in Boston, found that remote programming groups are eight per cent less likely than their peers to communicate about “critical software dependencies.”

In the software industry, this can have a huge effect, he said.

“That means they would take about 32 per cent more time to actually complete their code because these little bugs that pop up are very maddening and… if they’re by themselves at home, they have no one who’s going to support them at that time. But if you go into work and you have tight-knit connections, you get that support.”

When it comes to collaboration, physically being together has a huge effect for software companies as well, according to Waber’s research.

“Programming is a very collaborative task because the code you’re writing depends on the code of a lot of other people you’re working with, and if you don’t talk to the people your code depends on, the probability of a bug is 12 times higher,” he said.

But it’s not just software and technology companies that see a boost in collaboration when people physically work together, said Shawnee Love, lead consultant at Love HR in West Kelowna, B.C.

“When people are in the room together, if they’ve got a relationship, some of the conversations and the joking… it creates ideas, you see it’s like a brainstorming session happens organically,” she said. “It also breaks down silos because you have two people from two different departments sitting there talking… and they wouldn’t have necessarily crossed into each other’s space.”

Having employees working at the same location also has a positive impact on trust, which is crucial to an organization, said Waber.

“The way you trust people isn’t by sending them a bunch of emails. After work, you go and grab a beer with somebody or just talking about non-work-related things by the water cooler — these sorts of things are extremely important and it’s the social glue that holds the company together.”

But more and more employees around the world are telecommuting. Globally, one in five employees work from home frequently, while one in 10 do it every day, according to a 2012 poll of 12,000 people by Reuters/Ipsos. In Canada, 11.2 per cent of employees worked from home some of the time in 2008, at an average of eight hours per week, according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada.

And there are many benefits to telecommuting such as attracting and retaining employees as well as bottom-line savings. Telework can save employers $10,000 per year for each two-day-per-week telecommuter, according to a 2011 study by WorkShift, a telework initiative created by Calgary Economic Development.

In an open letter to Mayer, WorkShift director Robyn Bews said telling Yahoo employees they must be chained to a cubicle is akin to allowing smokers back into the office.

“Our kids’ generation will be likening being tethered to a desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the way we look back at smoking,” said Bews. “They’re going to laugh and say, ‘How did they think that was the best way to work? How did they think it was healthy for people to do that? Why did they think it was effective for getting good work out of people? Isn’t it silly they were having that conversation?’”

Employers shouldn’t take an all-or-nothing approach to telework, they should allow employees to work when and where they are most effective — which will vary per individual, she said.

“In a lot of examples, it’s (working from home) one to two days per week, but in other cases... if you need to be at home four days a week because that’s where you produce your best work and where you can get the best job done, then that’s what you should do.”

For this approach to be effective, employers need to understand and assess their overall culture and then assess their workforce, said Bews. It’s about hiring the right people to do the right job and trusting them to do their best work.

“It’s an understanding between an employer and employee that says... ‘Our priority is the results and your work. Where you produce that work is less relevant to us than the work that you produce, so we’re going to treat you like adults and allow you to make those decisions for yourself,’” said Bews.

But work-from-home arrangements may not be suitable for all employees, said Love. First of all, there should be a mandatory time frame for employees to work in the office before telecommuting, so they can get to know their team. Then, the criteria for telework eligibility would start with good performance, she said.

“If they’re a good performer, obviously they would tend to be more readily acceptable to work from home than if they’re struggling,” said Love. “People who are struggling with how to accomplish their job, you kind of want them close at hand so they can have resources and get their questions answered.”

Work-from-home employees also need to be very disciplined and in a position that lends itself well to telecommuting, she said.

As a best practice, all employers should allow for occasional work from home, said Waber. If employees are really stressed out about certain issues at home, they are not going to be very productive at the office.

“Maybe my kid’s sick today and they can’t go to school, but I can work from home; maybe there’s a huge accident on one of the highways and you can’t get in but you can work from home… that’s people wanting to stay connected — they have things they promised to deliver to their team and they want to make it happen,” said Love.

Yahoo’s memo did not say occasional work from home was prohibited, but it didn’t encourage it either: “For the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration.”

To help facilitate any type of work-from-home arrangement, employers should have a telecommuting policy in place, said Love.

It should outline whether there are a certain number of flex hours or days per year employees can use, if there are core hours when all employees need to be in the office, and how much face-time people need to put in, she said.

“It’s a wonderful thing, it just isn’t something you can assume anyone can do, and there has to be some clear ground rules on when it’s appropriate or not.”

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