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Telecommute vs. Tradition

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A lot of hay has been made over Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent decision to end the practice of allowing employees to work from home.  If you have watched television or picked up a paper, you no doubt saw a plethora of opinions on the subject.  Some are saying that this will damage the company’s ability to recruit and retain top talent.  Others are concerned for what this will mean for families as many employees depend on companies allowing them to telecommute.  I have heard that this change constitutes a backsliding in the progress created by the digital age.  On the flip side, I’ve heard from employers who say that they understand Mayer’s choice.  They worry that when employees work from home, there is the potential for missed moments – creativity, conversation, and those human moments that can sometimes spark the next big idea.

I have had occasion to both work from home and work in an office environment and honestly, I generally am more productive when working from home.  I attribute this to two factors.  At home, I am in control of my environment.  There are no surprises or distractions.  There is no office drama. There is no chatting by the coffee machine or discussing last night’s episode of American Idol.  There is just me and my computer…and a blanket.  Also, at home, I’m not watching a clock.  I don’t leave the building for lunch or at 5:00 pm.  There is something about working from home that makes an 11 hour day seem far less unpleasant.  Personally, when the goal is productivity and efficiency, working from home is the way to go.  But…what about when productivity isn’t the goal?  The best job I ever had was in a lively office environment.  We put in long hours. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together.  We had inside jokes.  We even created office games.  Working from home was never an option because we all had to be ready to spring into action on a moment’s notice and act as one cohesive unit.  If you have ever worked in an office like this, you know how satisfying it is when it goes well – when you go to work every day with people you consider friends, when you are part of a team that not only works collaboratively but thrives on comradery.

I have to say, when a manager says “employees are not permitted to work from home,” my first reaction is usually a snicker.  Maybe we cannot work from home between 9-5 but most are still expected to work from home…or the car, or the plane, or a restaurant.  The same technology that enables employees to telecommute is also creating an expectation of 24/7 employees.  Is the standard 40 hour work week becoming a thing of the past –destined to be replaced with some sort of on-call system?  When I was a little kid, my parents had a family friend who was a surgical nurse.  She carried a pager with her and if it beeped she was expected to make herself available.  I remember thinking how important she must be…life and death were in her hands.  Nowadays, just about everyone I know is expected to have a cell phone that receives their work e-mails.  Even on vacations…many of us receive phone calls and texts from our jobs.  I suppose the flip side of this argument is that technology is also providing employees with a wider range of distractions.  Who among us isn’t guilty of checking their personal e-mail on company time?  Maybe checking Facebook?  Sending a text message or two? Just as smart phones are allowing our employers unprecedented access to our free time, its giving the outside world unprecedented access to us.

At the heart of this issue is corporate culture.  In recent years Yahoo has earned itself a reputation for being somewhat stodgy.  Compared to its competitors, the company just seems rather unimaginative.  I think this reputation is what Mayer is hoping to change.  She needs to harness the creativity and passion of her staff in order to right the course of her ship. I suppose every company should elect to do what they feel is best for themselves.  If an employer fears they may lose productivity or creativity, they will need to weigh that against the potential loss of talent that may occur from banning working from home.  I tend to feel this particular situation has gotten blown out of proportion.  Time will reveal whether or not Ms Mayer’s decision was right for Yahoo.  We’ll see.  But, I do think it’s bringing up some interesting workplace issues that don’t often get the attention they deserve.

 Nicole Palmisano

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