, Salem, MA


March 5, 2013

Column: Yahoo CEO's telecommuting bomb could hurt many

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has dropped a bomb on the business world by rescinding permission for her employees to telecommute. It’s more than simply ironic that this decision was made by a 30-something woman who was hired to turn around the once-giant tech company. Mayer was six months pregnant when she started work and was widely expected to be family-friendly, instead of decidedly family-unfriendly. If anyone could have understood the importance of juggling work and family responsibilities, it should have been she, correct?

Not so much, as it turns out.

Clearly — to Mayer, at least — face time matters. There are things one produces collaboratively at a centralized workplace that cannot be replicated by telecommuting.

Mayer’s decision raises several important questions: What drove her to conclude that telecommuting was harming her chances to successfully turn around Yahoo? Will other companies follow her lead? And what does her decision say about a company’s willingness to support work-family flexibility benefits?

On the first question, Harvard Business Review’s Michael Schrage writes: “I’m pretty confident this reflects a data-driven decision more than a cavalier command. In all likelihood, Mayer has taken good, hard looks at Yahoo’s top 250 performers and top 20 projects and come to her own conclusions about who’s creating real value — and how — in her company. She knows who her best people are.”

Assuming Schrage is right — and most business writers are echoing his or a similar explanation for her move — that’s a pretty damning assessment of the efficacy of telecommuting, at least in the high-tech field. Since the advent of working via wireless, experts have always known that telecommuting could only apply in certain categories of work. Factory workers, hotel service providers, housekeepers, retail clerks, nurses, and most doctors and the like must show up at the workplace to put in hours. That is not true of lawyers, writers, filing clerks, 800-number operators and others who can complete much of their work remotely.

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