In recent years, it’s been a growing trend by American companies, particularly in high tech and other industries that consider themselves “progressive,” to allow employees to work from home. Not only does this increase satisfaction and allow companies to portray themselves as offering better work-life balance, it has other positive outcomes for the company as well. Studies have shown that those working at home have increased productivity, improved work satisfaction, decreased absenteeism, put in longer hours, and have less turnover. There are also environmental benefits from reduced commuting.
With positives like that, perhaps companies should just abolish their offices and have everyone work remotely. And indeed there are some companies that have done exactly that. For example, Automattic, the company behind the popular blogging software WordPress, has no central office. Its 120 employees all work from their homes. Other companies have offices but there are fewer desks than employees. Staff primarily work remotely, and get assigned where to sit when they do come in, in an approach called “hoteling” that saves significantly on real estate costs.
Given that background, the leak in late February of an internal memo at Yahoo! announcing that it would be abolishing work-at-home arrangements sent shockwaves through the business world. The move is certainly bucking the overall trend, and raised many eyebrows.
The new policy is one of many instituted under new CEO Marissa Mayer, who is valiantly trying to re-energize a corporate culture that many say had become “fat and lazy” over the years. Evidently Yahoo!’s work-from-home policies were more lenient than most, and were often abused by employees who did the minimal amount of work and “hid” at home, never coming into the office.
The memo announcing the change emphasized the importance of face-to-face communication and collaboration, stating that “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.” So Yahoo!’s move to bring people back to the office can be seen as an attempt to spark more creativity. And indeed, studies show that while people who work at home are significantly more productive, they are less innovative.
In social media and the press there has been quite a backlash against Mayer for what British business magnate Richard Branson called “a backwards step.” The negative feelings are perhaps particularly strong because many expected Mayer, who recently gave birth to her first child, to promote a family-friendly workplace. And abolishing work-at-home, which can be an important tool for working mothers to achieve work-life balance, looks like it’s going in the opposite direction. Many have also pointed wryly to the fact that Mayer paid to set up a nursery in her office so that she could bring her baby to work — an option that is not likely to be available to other female employees at Yahoo!
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