Marissa Mayer Was Right: Why Your Employees Need to Be Back at the Office

The Yahoo controversy: To be an innovative giant, do you need to prevent employees from working at home?
February 26, 2013

There has been a lot of outrage about the leaked memo from Marissa Mayer, Yahoo CEO (and mom), demanding all Yahoo employees stop working from home. This does not come as a surprise, since Mayer is widely considered a Type A executive who accepted her job when she was 5 months pregnant, only took a two-week maternity leave, and even built a nursery next to her office on her own dime to be closer to her child while working. This episode could certainly be interpreted as a slap in the face to time-crunched working women who are trying to balance their personal and professional lives. It especially stings coming from the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company (she's 37) and only one of 12 women who hold the prestigious title.

This announcement also bucks a work recent trend. Families and Work Institute reports that 63 percent of employers now allow employees to work remotely. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that overall, 24 percent of employed Americans work from home at least a few hours a week. This has become especially popular trend among small-business owners trying to hire the best talent without increasing office overhead. 

WFH Concerns

Many employers worry about what really happens when employees work from home. There are a lot of distractions. Many people who listen to conference calls are actually doing another activity entirely (sound familiar?). The Huffington Post reports that ex-Yahoo employees believe these distractions may have been one of the reasons for Mayer’s decision. The results from a 2012 study by Wakefield Research for Citrix showed that 43 percent of employees watched TV or a movie while telecommuting. Additionally, 35 percent did household chores and 28 percent made dinner while “working.” 

However, research by UC Davis Health System shows that employee satisfaction goes up when there are more flexible working policies. But John Challenger, chief executive of executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, told The New York Times, “a lot of companies are afraid to let their workers work from home ... because they’re afraid they’ll lose control.” 

Read More: Solving the Top 4 Pitfalls of Working From Home

Mayer is right. For Yahoo to be an innovative technology giant, people need to be physically together: In fact, tech giants like Facebook and Google don’t encourage employees to work from home. In fact, their offices are designed so employees will want to come to (and stay at) work. Among some of the several perks are free gourmet food, child care and dry cleaners. The Los Angeles Times reports that Google CFO Patrick Pichette, when asked about how many people work from home, replied “as few as possible.” The New York Times reports that Collin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Partners, told The New York Times the memo looks like an effort to bring the Google culture to Yahoo. He says Mayer “brings all the Google lessons to the table, and Google is very focused on having your life revolve around their campus so you can spend a significantly larger chunk of time at work.” 

Zappos previously let some customer service agents work from home, but recently changed that rule. In the same article, the New York Times reports that Zach Ware, Zappos' head of campus development, says success "is built on our culture, and our perspective is you can’t really do that on email.” 

These companies believe that employees are more innovative when working in person with a team than working solo remotely. They argue that physical togetherness fosters the best collaborations. Jackie Reses, Yahoo HR Chief, wrote in the memo that to “become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.” 

Read More: Does Telecommuting Threaten the Work/Life Balance? 

Other companies think that an innovation culture can still be achieved when employees work remotely. Business Insider reports that Amazon’s top engineer lives on a boat. WordPress CEO Matt Mullenwig told NPR that he believes the “center of gravity of an organization should be as close to what they make as possible. If you make cars, you need people in the factory. If you breed horses, be in the stable. If you make the Internet, live on the Internet, and use all the freedom and power it gives you." 

Something magical happens when people work together—in person. This is why so many companies stress on-location collaboration sessions. Compromise is needed here, especially in a 24/7 world that demands the merging of personal and professional lives. As with most HR policies, there's not a one-size solution that fits every company. As Mullenwig states, it will depend on the company’s business, the person’s job and the time of the year. A telecommuting strategy is part of the tradeoff that every company has to make as it tries to attract top talent. There's no doubt that every employer needs to have the flexibility to allow employees to work from home to stay with a sick child or wait for the cable guy. This is why most small businesses use some type of video chat, instant messaging or other collaboration software.

When you decide on your telecommuting strategy, analyze the job function. Is the position about doing individual repetitive tasks where productivity needs to be maximized? This person can successfully work at home. If the position involves consistent collaboration with others in innovative ways, this person probably belongs at the office surrounded by his or her peers. Think about the type of culture that the company is building. Does it need a physical place or just a virtual grouping of people? When devising a telecommuting strategy, you should consider all these factors, not solely the convenience of your employees.

What do you think: Is Marissa Mayer right? What is your telecommuting policy?
Read more about telecommuting issues

Photo: Getty Images