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Yahoo move casts shadow over telecommuting

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has come down hard on the company's work-at-home policy. She risks losing some good employees.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 1, 2013 11:32AM

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently announced that as of June all employees would be required to work on-site. A huge howl arose on behalf of location-independent workers everywhere: If it works, why fix it?

Except that at long-struggling Yahoo perhaps it isn't working. Business Insider recently interviewed an ex-Yahoo engineer who talked about remote workers who put in minimal effort and were regularly unavailable when needed. The source said Mayer's decision was needed to deal with "Yahoo's huge, bloated infrastructure."

Specifically: Slackers who don't want supervision will quit, which keeps the company from having to lay them off.

While I understand Mayer's need to prune dead wood, I think she'll damage some perfectly healthy branches in the process. Luke Landes of Consumerism Commentary said it quite well: 

"Voluntary attrition always backfires.

"By making conditions worse for employees in an effort to let a portion of the workforce go without explicitly firing people, Yahoo stands to lose its best employees, not its worst," Landes wrote in a post called "Working from home: A benefit or a distraction?"

"These folks can do better than Yahoo. They can find a job relatively quickly, one offering the benefits no longer available at the waning tech behemoth."

The work-life balance

Some declared Mayer's decision a slap at working mothers who find telecommuting helps their families operate more smoothly. Working at home even one or two days a week usually means paying less for child care. It also saves money in other ways, such as lower commuting costs and less professional clothing to buy (and likely dry-clean).

Less time spent on highways or public transit translates to reduced stress and fatigue. Telecommuters can save because they are less likely to resort to buying takeout and outsourcing chores. They might be less likely to succumb to costly stress-related health issues.

But the work-life balance is also tricky for those who do not have parenting responsibilities. Too often the bosses expect your work to be your life. Landes, of Consumerism Commentary, noted that Mayer seems to be looking for people willing to sacrifice things like time with family and friends.

Logo: Serious Man Examining a Bill (Digital Vision, Getty Images)
Again, this might burn off some dead wood. But it could burn out some dedicated workers, who put in extra effort because of the telecommuting option.

Companies that care

I don't work at Yahoo, obviously. But I can speak to the issue because of my current and past employment history. Right now, as long as I deliver on my assignments, the company doesn't much care where I write them.

Back in my newspapering days of the 1980s and '90s, we weren't allowed to telecommute because the publisher thought reporters belonged in the newsroom. But even back in those dark ages of work-life balance the newspaper was flexible enough to let you work from home if your kid got sick. Knowing I could be home if I had to was a huge benefit.

In 1998, my daughter became critically ill with a rare neurological disease while away at college. I flew down to be with her during the 11-week hospitalization. During that time my higher-ups: 

  • Didn't bat an eye when I said I'd be out of the office for an unknowable amount of time.
  • Let me string together all my sick and vacation leave.
  • Agreed to let me come back for two, one-week work sessions.
  • Paid me for some "work" that didn't really amount to much, toward the end of the hospitalization.

In all, I missed only a couple of weeks' worth of salary. That's because the publisher knew me and my family. He knew our situation. He even knew our daughter: Over the years I'd been permitted to bring her in if an assignment kept me working later than the after-school care stayed open.

How many Yahoo employees does Mayer know, I wonder?

Methods vs. results

Obviously you don't get to be a CEO without a serious work ethic. In fact, Mayer returned to the job just two weeks after giving birth to her son in September.


Of course, Mayer's version of parenthood is a tad more privileged than most: She paid to have a nursery built at the office. The CEO also has the salary to smooth over issues like commuting, cooking, cleaning, and saving for college and retirement.

Not everyone wants to struggle up the corporate ladder. Plenty of us want to have jobs that, as author Sinclair Lewis puts it, allow us to be "free, and even human, after hours."

I wouldn't go so far as to predict, "As Yahoo goes, so go all corporations." But I wonder how many other managers might cast a critical eye on telecommuting. They'd do well to focus on results versus methods. If you deliver the goods, does it matter whether you deliver them by way of 40 cubicle hours a week or from your living room sofa?

Put another way: I'd already been happy with the newspaper job despite its at-times insane hours and tiny salary increases (when we got raises at all). The company's compassionate response during my daughter's illness cemented my desire to go above and beyond as an employee. If it hadn't been for my husband's getting a job somewhere else, I'd be there still.

You can't buy that kind of loyalty. But you can chase it away pretty easily.

Do you telecommute? Are you concerned that the Yahoo decision will affect your employer's policies?

More on MSN Money:

Mar 2, 2013 4:47AM

IMHO, I think this is going to backfire BIG TIME.  The new CEO IS going to lose her best people.  They can easily get comparable/better jobs elsewhere. 


Some employees will NOT want to undertake a HUGE commute or live too far away to be a commuter.  Some employees will have spouses employed near where they live and cannot move to be a reasonable commute.

Today's work at home employees can't be trusted. People tend to stray without supervision.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.