Marissa Mayer, CEO and Board Member of Yahoo has come under a lot of negative pressure recently, primarily for her new rule requiring Yahoo employees to cease telecommuting and either show up for work or quit.
I have to admit that I was ambivalent about it at first. The businessman in me says that you have to be able to see employees to confirm that they’re working. The human in me says that some people truly benefit from the option to telecommute. Then I looked at some facts.
First, since Ms. Mayer was appointed the youngest CEO in history in June of 2012, Yahoo’s stock price has increased more than 50% from around $14.00 to around $23.00. This woman is no slouch. But stock price isn’t everything.
Roughly 2% of the U.S. workforce now telecommutes at least one out of 30 days. It saves time, fuel and, in some cases, the stress of driving in traffic. Those who do it swear by it. Technology exists that can supposedly measure productivity of home workers (calls made and received, lines of code written, sales appointments confirmed, etc.) without the need for face time.
The issue with telecommuting isn’t the fact that you can’t actually see the employee, (Skype comes to mind). It is that when an employee works from home, it is often for reasons other than traffic. Many simply like the convenience of not having to live by a time-clock, or have children or other duties to attend to. They have genuine reasons to prefer working from home.
If they work from home in order to watch their children, then, by definition, those children must occasionally distract them-otherwise they wouldn’t need to be watched. The fact that children need attention is indisputable. Children distract their parents from whatever else their parents may be doing, be it watching television, reading a book, making love, or doing the job assigned by their employer, irrespective of the degree of importance attached to those other things. It is difficult to prove that any person who works at a particular level without distractions can work at the same level while being distracted.
There are also a multitude of studies that indicate that face-to-face interaction among employees fosters innovation and creativity, as well as company loyalty. The company “water cooler” tends to be a place where people talk shop and feed off of each other’s knowledge and experience. This is obviously impossible with telecommuters.
Now, I’m not going to ignore the fact that Marissa Mayer, having recently given birth to a son, has built, at company expense, a nursery right next door to her office! Aha! Hypocrisy you say! That proves it! Instead of working from home, she simply, err, ah, homes from work!
No, actually it’s just one of the benefits of being a CEO. She also has access to the company jet and other perquisites that most of us will never see, so the nursery only serves to prove that she is of a position that allows her to spend company money on her personal conveniences. When you or I get to be CEOs of global companies, we can do the same. But I digress…
There are those who claim to thrive on what has been colloquially called “multi-tasking”. This entire concept has been dis-proven time and time again, most recently by a joint Stanford/Harvard study which concluded that our brains are incapable of thoughtful multi-tasking. The best we can do is rapidly move our attention from one thing to another, but every time we move it back there is some cognitive lag until we are able to mentally pick-up where we left off. Distractions are distractions. If a person can produce a certain level of work while distracted, it is a simple truism that they can produce more work when not distracted.
Companies, for better or for worse, usually pay for the full attention of the employee. They have the right to demand as much and, at least in this case, Ms Mayer does not believe she was receiving the full attention for which she was paying.
What is surprising to me is how an enormously respected company like Google, with its free food, on-site gyms, barber shops and child-care, is praised for doing exactly what Marissa Mayer is being vilified for doing-inducing employees to actually come to work. Google cannot provide all those free things to people who aren’t on the Google campus. Yahoo provides many of the same free benefits as Google at their work-sites as well.
I don’t deny that, in many cases, there are benefits to telecommuting. Working in your pajamas has its benefits, I guess. But I’m not sure that the benefits of those pajama-clad workdays always accrue to the company which is paying for them.