Published February 27, 2013
She may have only taken a few days of maternity leave herself, but some are wondering if Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer has gone too far by banning employees from working from home.
There are concerns that it could hurt morale and even impact Yahoo's ability to attract fresh talent in an industry ripe with entrepreneurialism and start-ups.
“Potentially, it could hurt morale,” said Scott Nelles, Market Director for Regus, the world’s largest provider of flexible office solutions. It happens almost every time a company makes a big decision like this that shakes up the way employees perceive the organization, he said.
However, there is also a much bigger picture that those outside of Yahoo's strategic team just can't see. Just look at Mayer’s track record so far at Yahoo. She is trying to revitalize the struggling tech giant, and so far, her efforts have mostly returned recognizable benefits, with investors cheering last month when Yahoo handily beat Wall Street expectations.
In the year that she has been at the helm of the ailing search engine, Mayer has revamped the website, streamlined the organization and put a temporary lock on the C-Suite’s revolving door.
Morale, too, has been on the rise at Yahoo after employees last year were put through the ringer with layoffs and cutbacks. Mayer, taking a page from Google’s playbook, introduced free cafeteria food at Yahoo’s Silicon Valley headquarters and offered employees new iPhone and Android devices.
"Nobody can argue with the results she’s achieved so far, so I think we have to give her the benefit of the doubt," said Paul Spiegelman, CEO of BerylHealth and an employee morale expert who has authored books on improving the workplace environment.
Yet all of those achievements seemed to take backseat when a memo to employees that banned working from home was leaked to the press.
Yahoo, touting the importance of “physically being together,” asked that all employees who have work-from-home arrangements begin working in the office starting in June.
“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” the note said. “That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.”
The memo went on to note that some of the company’s best decisions and insights come from hallways and cafeteria discussions, meeting new coworkers and impromptu in-person team meetings.
A Yahoo spokesperson said the company doesn't discuss internal matters.
"This isn't a broad industry view on working from home -- this is about what is right for Yahoo, right now," the person said.
Working from Home
The lion’s share of Yahoo's critics claim solid work can be done at home, as it keeps workers happy and morale high, which can lead to more focused employees.
Backing up that view, a Stanford University study published on Feb. 22 of a Nasdaq-listed Chinese travel agency showed that home working led to a 13% performance increase, as people worked longer shifts.
Working from home has become more efficient and secure than ever, with digital conference rooms and the bring-your-own device markets soaring over the last few years. Those types of capabilities seem especially relevant to a company like Yahoo that is trying to maintain its status as a tech titan.
The ability for remote employees to securely access files, apps and data has allowed at-home workers to work "just as if they were in the office," said Ajay Arora, Chief Technology Officer of mobile at AppSense.
At the same time, nixing a lengthy commute (think two hours each way for some employees) can improve their productivity and efficiency, enabling them to work at their own pace if their position allows.
“If you’re confined to not working when commuting – that’s absolutely lost productivity,” said Arora. “Enabling some employees to work the way they want and the way they choose, people will spread those hours out across the day – be more productive and more focused and won’t have the stress of a whole host of things.”
Of course, the home also has many distractions, look no further than a host of technologies like televisions and video games. Sometimes a little adult-to-adult professional interaction can be a cure-all.
“The fact is when people are together it makes for a better culture and greater collaboration and I think that outweighs the potential pushback from people who used to work from home but won’t be able to anymore,” Spiegelman said. “There will be a little grumbling but over time it delivers a strong message.”
After all, Mayer, having been poached from Google (GOOG) last summer, has been trying to closely follow the model of her former employer and Yahoo's larger and more successful rival, and that means having employees work longer hours in the office while providing in-office perks.
“There are other ways to provide that flexibility to people and still work in an atmosphere where they can hold people accountable, build a team and focus,” Nelles said. “The definition and perception of flexibility varies from company to company.”
Of course, Yahoo most likely didn't approach this decision blindly, knowing there would be pushback.
"I would expect that she has considered other, let’s call it perks, or benefits, that she hopes will outweigh or compensate for that change," Spiegelman said.