Facetime—All the time: Going against the trend of flexible work arrangements

In late February, Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, banned the company’s longstanding practice of telecommuting. “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” she explained. “That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.” In recent years Yahoo has fallen behind its competition when it comes to designing innovative new products.
Mayer places the blame, in part, on employees who work from home, arguing that both communication and imagination require daily face-to-face contact between team members. Any employees not willing to accept this draconian decision are welcome pack up their desk by June, when the policy goes into effect.

In the United States, roughly 10 percent of the workforce works from home at least one day a week. In 1997, nearly five percent of U.S. employees reported that they worked primarily from home, but within a little more than a decade, the number has climbed to 6.6 percent. This increase is driven by web-based software, instant messaging, videoconferencing systems and other high-tech communication tools that allow workers remain connected and productive while in their home offices (ironically enough, Yahoo is one of the leading companies in designing these very products). Mayer’s decision may result in Yahoo losing out on the contributions of many talented and dedicated employees who, for geographical or personal reasons, cannot be on site daily. A happy worker is a productive worker and this kind of micromanagement kills productivity. This absolutist approach is no more than an example of a stunting monoculture mentality.

Mayer is clearly charged with the mission to bring Yahoo to its former glory years of a decade ago. It would be understandable if key project teams, selected to spearhead the turnaround at Yahoo, are required to consistently meet face-to-face to collaborate. But why does Mayer think this is applicable to the whole company? If a boss isn’t satisfied with a telecommuter’s performance, he or she can revoke this accommodation on an individual basis. Every employee knows that competence and relevance is key to one’s career at a company: if you fail to produce, you phase out. It makes no difference where you do (or don’t) accomplish the company’s mission.

Top companies no longer have 40 hour work weeks. Employees are expected to log in however much time is needed to get the job done. So does Mayer’s mandate of no work from home now mean that Yahoo employees can ignore work email and IMs the minute they step outside the building? Doubtful. Because Yahoo, along with its Silicon Valley brethren, demand long hours from their employees, it must also offer a degree of flexibility. After all, these companies have the foresight to know that by investing in perks like free gourmet meals, dry cleaning services and state-of-the art gyms, they are able to keep people in the office and productive. In much the same way, maintaining an accommodating attitude when it comes to telecommuting is also an investment in worker productivity.

Personally speaking, telecommuting enables employees to focus on the global workday. I occasionally have meetings early in the morning, before my children wake up, with European colleagues, and conduct evening meetings, when my kids are heading off to bed, with the Far East. Any given week, I do not have the same schedule. Between two different office locations, working from home, business travel and after school activities, I generally have the flexibility to structure my schedule as needed. I understand what my company expects of me and it, in turn, understands my need for flexibility, granting me this privilege. I would not be able to deliver if my company did not invest in the digital tools necessary to optimize conversations and meetings—instant messaging, video conferences, recorded presentations—and did not trust me to use these tools effectively. I, and most successfully professionals, use our professional judgment or team/project norms to know when it’s time to call a face-to-face meeting versus a virtual one.

I, and my colleagues, can attest to the fact that both our speed and focus jumps when we work from our home offices; we are not being slowed down by office banter or other workplace distractions. Remote workers take less breaks and sick days than on-site employees, and have a lower attrition rate. Hybrid work styles (part office/part working from home/part on the road) are the model of the future for most professions. Certainly, there are advantages to hallway conversations and lunches with colleagues, but a full five-day work week in the office is not necessary to make these connections.

One size does not fit all; by allowing workers the freedom to find a combination of in-office days and home office days as best balances their individual needs, companies will find their employees are happier and more loyal and engaged. And that most effectively lifts the bottom line.

Asma Roomi Kasuba is a project management professional in the pharmaceutical industry. Most recently she has been working on a prostate and breast cancer drug. When not frantically running from work, home and elementary school, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two boys, such as defeating all three of them in “Just Dance” and scouting sports cars on the road.

Photo credit: Erik Eckel

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