Marissa Mayer's Latest Big Edict

Marissa Mayer's Latest Big Edict

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has banned employees from working from home.

An all-staff memo that went out Friday said, "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."

Internet condemnation was swift and fierce.

  • The Atlantic: Marissa Mayer Is Wrong: Working From Home Can Make You More Productive
  • Quartz: The Worst Decision Marissa Mayer Has Made in Her Tenure as Yahoo CEO
  • Forbes: 4 Reasons Marissa Mayer's No-At-Home-Work Policy Is An Epic Fail

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As the San Jose Mercury News sedately summarized, "Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's ban on telecommuting sparks a firestorm."

But surprisingly, despite the vociferous outcry, a number of people made vocal their support of the ex-Googler and power maternity leave mom who only took two weeks off after giving birth to her firstborn in the fall.

The Haters

First, let's get on record why some people think her move was a horrible, no good idea:

  1.  A number of telecommuting studies show that productivity actually goes up when workers work from home. As The Atlantic points out, a Stanford study of a Chinese travel agency showed that telecommuting workers took fewer breaks and sick-days and answered more calls every minute. Additionally, a survey of studies on telecommuting and productivity had a hard time finding any study that did not show telecommuting boosted productivity.
  2. A no-telecommuting policy means higher costs for Yahoo. The Atlantic also referenced a Cisco study that found it saved $277 million a year due to telecommuting.
  3. Finally, employees who telecommute have lower stress levels. This was one of the results in the Chinese travel agency study, and Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, told Forbes that people who work from home tend to have less stress because they don't have to endure the stress of commuting and because they have better work/life balance.

All sound like reasonable points, but cue the backlash to the backlash: Some are saying that what applies generally may not apply at Yahoo.

The Supporters

The day after the firestorm, a number of stories popped up saying that the ban was much needed at Yahoo.

For instance, Business Insider cites an anonymous former Yahoo engineer who says, ""For what it's worth, I support the no-working-from-home rule. There's a ton of abuse of that at Yahoo. Something specific to the company."

Business Insider also spoke with someone who was familiar with Mayer's decision-making process and who said that Yahoo has a huge number of remote employees: "Our source says the kinds of work-from-home arrangements popular at Yahoo were not common to other Valley companies like Google or Facebook."

This person also says that she is aware that the new policy will drive some people to quit, which has the beneficial side effect of helping the company, which the source calls "bloated," to cut staff, rather than laying people off. "She's turned out to have a lot of courage. She's dealing with problems no one wanted to deal with before," the source says.

And beyond that, a number of supporters also champion Yahoo's stated reason for this new policy: innovation that occurs over casual conversation and through face-to-face interactions.

For instance, Zappos also prohibits telecommuting and even forces all employees to leave and exit by one door.

Zach Ware, the head of Zappos campus development, told The New York Times, “It’s to maximize those serendipitous encounters. The success of our company is built on our culture, and our perspective is you can’t really do that on e-mail.”

Final Call?

Working at home and working in an office both have pros and cons. The Times article reports that studies show that while telecommuting boosts productivity, it hurts innovation. The story quotes John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University who runs a human resource advisory firm: "If you want innovation, then you need interaction. If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.'”

So what it boils down to may be this: Mayer may have felt that her quest to turn around the ailing tech giant could hinge on her ability to encourage innovation. And if she has to sacrifice some workers and some productivity along the way, then so be it.

photo: Marissa Mayer (jolieodell/Flickr)

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