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Is telecommuting good for business? Yahoo edict has some reviewing effectiveness

By Leanne Italie

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 11 2013 12:39 a.m. MDT

The perceived benefits for workers are clear. While 37 percent of the companies in Galinsky's report cite retention of employees as the main reason for developing workplace flexibility and other programs, Lister said 90 percent of teleworkers "feel being able to work flexibly improves their quality of life."

But what about for employers?

The leaked Yahoo memo, written by Jackie Reses, the company's human resources director, said in part:

"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meeting. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."

Researchers in the field note a dearth in credible studies that confirm a boost in creative flow or innovation from face time.

And telecommuting may actually boost productivity, at least where it stands in the number of hours worked, said researchers Mary C. Noonan and Jennifer L. Glass in a study of telecommuting published last June in the Monthly Labor Review, a publication of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The two studied employees who work regularly but not exclusively from home and found that for them, telecommuting was not a substitute for working onsite during an agreed upon work week but rather was in addition to a full week, at least half the time.

"People have only looked at the benefits without seeing that maybe some of these policies can come back to bite you," said Noonan, a sociologist who teaches classes on the American family and statistics at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Parents, Glass said, are no more likely to telecommute than non-parents; women no more likely than men.

The report from the Families and Work Institute said gains have been made in other flex options as well as working from home over the seven-year period covered. The offer of flex time, for instance, increased to 77 percent from 66 percent. Daily time off when important needs arise went from 77 percent to 87 percent.

The institute's survey, conducted by Harris Interactive by phone and questionnaire, included 1,126 U.S. employers with 50 or more workers.

Galinsky had expected the recession would squeeze workplace flexibility, and attributes much of the gains to companies looking to cut real estate costs and other expenses. Of companies with at least eight family-friendly policies, she said, 9 percent cited increased productivity as the reason.

Five percent cited increasing employee commitment or engagement. One percent cited recruiting and retaining women.

Only 10 percent of the employers in the study cited a potential loss of productivity and difficulty supervising staff as reasons for not adopting more family-friendly policies. Twenty five percent cited cost, 12 percent cited job requirements and workloads, and 7 percent potential abuse.

Some have decried the Yahoo ban as something that would hurt women — an especially heated argument because Mayer had become a potent feminist symbol when she was hired last July while pregnant.

But Galinsky said most companies offer flexibility because of benefits to the bottom line rather than a commitment to work-family balance.

After the revelation, Yahoo urged the world not to read too much into the ban beyond the walls of Yahoo itself. The company has declined further comment.

Glass, a professor of sociology and population research at the University of Texas at Austin, suspects little to no reliable research supports the notion that hallway meetings are anything more than gossip sessions or recaps of baseball scores from the night before. Does proximity, in this age of videoconferencing, social networks and other tools, still matter?

"Certainly there is nothing out there that you can easily find that suggests innovation is linked to face time," she said.

Some former Yahoos, as company employees are called, have been quoted anonymously in news and blog reports as saying dead wood is hiding at home.

"If you've got a performance issue with people, deal with that as a performance issue," Galinsky said. "If people are slacking off and not working, then deal with it that way. This was a blunt instrument."

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