Is Telecommuting a Bad Idea?

Cyberspace has been all abuzz about the new ban on telecommuting announced by Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer.  Is telecommuting a bad idea?  Well, I hate to sound like all the attorneys I work with, but the answer is “it depends.”   If you check out some of the articles written, many of which liberally quote former employees, you will note that people weigh in on both sides of the issue.

Arguments against the ban seem to center on two points.  The first point is that there is great irony in banning an employment policy which is enabled by technology, when the company is fundamendally rooted in technology innovation, and located in Silicon Valley, which is internationally known for technology innovation.  I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it.  What?  Is it giving the other technology companies a black eye?  Is this HR policy change such an abomination that it takes these forward-thinking companies into the dark ages?  I don’t think so.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m thrilled that technology exists which makes telecommuting and virtual office arrangements possible.  I have worked on a virtual office basis for the PA Bar Association for 14 years.  So it should be clear that I am in favor of such arrangements.  But only when they make good sense and work from a business perspective for both employer and employee.  That’s really what’s at issue here.

The second point being raised is that this is a very abrupt change in a widely-deployed work policy, and will leave a large number of employees unable to continue to work under a more “traditional” arrangement.  Again, I do understand.  But things change.  Economies change.  Companies change.  And so, too, must employees occassionally change.  The new CEO has taken fast and decisive action.  She is tasked with turning a company around, in an industry where change occurs in a nanosecond.  Should she take her time, examining each telecommuter individually to determine whether or not their arrangement is providing the necessary ROI?  The company could cease to exist or pass a point of no return before that exercise is concluded.

I’ve been in situations where decisive action must be taken, such as downsizing a workforce.  This is not something that can be done in pieces.  In the long term the harm to morale is greaterwith the gentler, more gradual approach.  It’s like removing a bandaid from a hairy arm . . . going slowly doesn’t easy the pain, it exacerbates it.

Here’s my take from an outsider’s perspective, but also the perspective of one who has been charged with turning around a company more than once.  One has to look at the organization one runs as a living breathing entity.  I always thought of the companies I managed as infants, entrusted to my care.  Like any nurturing mother, I was ferocious and unmerciful with anything which threatened the strength, growth or viability of my child.  It never mattered whose ox I had to gore in order to protect and nurture the child.  There were no sacred cows.  Any clear threats were quickly dispatched.  This rarely made me popular.  But it always made me successful, along with the company entrusted to my care.

If you read what former Yahoo workers have to say — along with the few current ones who dare to speak up — you will discover that in all likelihood the option to telecommute became an entitlement over the years, rather than a rare privilege.  Enormous number of workers chose to work remotely not because of lifestyle needs (which is what telecommuting should be about) but because of the desire to escape workplace scrutiny.  Sure, some people gave an honest day’s work for their wages.  But I think that an enormous number of people took advantage and were not earning their wages.

One of the problems inherent in telecommuting policies is oversight.  How does one know whether there is a fair exchange of work for pay?  In some instances it is relatively easy.  For example, a remote receptionist has to cover phones for a certain number of hours, regardless of whether the phone rings.  It’s easy to spot check to make sure they are doing their job.  A remote attorney is usually paid based on billable hours spent on client matters.  As long as the hours are reasonable, billable, and paid by the client, there is no reason to question efficacy.   But the reality is that for most jobs done remotely, it is difficult to determine  successful performance.  For that reason, employers need to think about what measurements they will have to gauge success before approving any telecommuting request.  And it should be openly discussed with the employee, so they know the terms of the arrangement.

I agree with Mayer’s move on many fronts.  The Yahoo workforce is probably in need of “rightsizing” and by making this change, attrition will eliminate some of this problem.  Yahoo depends on innovation to survive.  Innovation does not happen with a huge remote workforce of creative minds.  Innovation happens when you squeeze creative people into a workplace like sardines with a little extra elbow room, where they are forced to interact continually.  Allow them to be a little rowdy and undisciplined.  Provide food whenever possible.  And then throw in some food for thought, e.g. challenges to work on, and let them germinate.  Wonderful things will grow.

I would not be surprised if telecommuting is reintroduced to the company again in a few years.  But it will not be until there has been a turnaround achieved, if it in fact can be achieved.  And when it happens, it will be on a much more restricted basis, and more carefully measured and monitored.  And it will most certainly never again be allowed to be regarded by employees as an entitlement.

2 Comments

  • By Nelson, March 14, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

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  • By Ellen, March 25, 2014 @ 7:43 pm

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