Balancing act: Yahoo's decision shouldn't derail flexible work options

Published: Tuesday, March 12 2013 8:00 a.m. MDT

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently announced a ban on working from home.

Peter Kramer, Associated Press

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The pros and cons of telecommuting have been in the news since Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced a couple of weeks ago that, starting in June, the company's employees would no longer be allowed to work from home.

The Deseret News quoted a Yahoo memo cited by USA Today, which said the change was designed to help employees be "more productive, efficient and fun." The memo also said in-office work was important because some of the company's best insights come from "hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings."

Many people were shocked by this development, and I must admit to feeling some surprise, too. I don't have experience working in the tech industry, but I assumed that flexible work arrangements, including working from home, were a valued part of the culture of all of its big players.

Apparently that is not going to be the case at Yahoo, but the question now is whether other companies will follow its lead.

While I don't think telecommuting is a good fit for every company or employee, I do believe it would be a shame if it were eliminated completely.

During my previous life as a full-time newspaper reporter, I often worked from home. But then again, I also worked from the office and from city council meeting rooms and from highway accident scenes. It was that kind of job, especially early in my career.

After I became an editor, I was more office-bound. I sometimes felt like I was a switchboard operator, taking calls from journalists in the field, managing the flow of information back to them and trying to make sure their stories were edited in a timely manner and sent where they needed to go to make the next day's paper.

I did try some telecommuting on occasion, in particular during a four-month period while I was business editor and my wife took a part-time job teaching a college feature writing class two mornings a week. We had a relatively new baby at the time, so I worked from home every Tuesday and Thursday morning while also trying to take care of the little guy.

I woke up extra early those days to get most of my morning routine out of the way before the baby woke up, but sometimes he would foil my best-laid plans. This experience taught me that it's not easy to type while holding a squirming baby, and those relatively inefficient mornings would invariably result in later evenings at the office.

Since I changed careers, however, I've found that I can successfully telecommute on occasion. This is thanks both to the duties of my new job and to the fact that our children are all in school now, which makes it much easier to concentrate at home.

Many of the people on my team also work from home frequently, some as often as one day each week, and I don't think it's hurt our productivity at all. On the contrary, I think it's a healthy option to offer for work-life balance reasons, and those who take advantage of the opportunity seem to be highly productive while they're away.

We are a collaborative group and depend on a lot of face time with each other to craft our products and develop new ideas, but we also recognize that it's nice to have some uninterrupted work time away from the office every now and then.

Again, this arrangement wouldn't work for every job or even for every team at a particular company. Some people just can't motivate themselves to work from home and are too easily distracted to be effective when they're not at the office. As with every work-life perk, this one can be abused by people who choose to do so.

But despite these challenges and the Yahoo decision, I don't think telecommuting is going away anytime soon. That feeling is supported by the latest Flexible Job Index (FJI), which "tracks the availability and variety in the employment market for telecommuting, part-time and other flexible jobs." The index is compiled by FlexJobs, an online service for hand-screened and professional flexible, part-time, telecommuting and freelance job listings.

The latest monthly index, released last week, showed large increases in available flexible jobs in several career fields during February, including consulting, up 48 percent; entertainment and media, up 33 percent; HR recruiting, up 24 percent; writing, up 21 percent; and computer IT, up 12 percent.

The index reported that the top industries for flexible jobs in February were medical and health, customer service, administrative, sales, education and training, and computer and IT.

“The variety found in these top industries for flexible jobs shows a broad spectrum of support for work-life balance through arrangements like telecommuting," FlexJobs CEO Sara Sutton Fell said in a press release about the index.

"Yahoo might be interested to know that, out of the 50 industries we track, 'computer and IT' consistently ranks in the top 10 for offering flexible jobs. Smart employers know that these options help keep them competitive. As we follow the numbers every month, we see that the availability of such jobs will continue to grow well into the future.”

That is the bottom line that I believe will ensure the survival and expansion of telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements. Employees today are demanding better work-life balance, and employers will need to offer such options if they want to attract and retain the best workers.

At least, that's my opinion. What do you think about Yahoo's decision to end telecommuting? Has the work-life pendulum swung too far in favor of employees and allowing flexible work options? Or should more companies offer their employees the chance to telecommute, when reasonable?

I'm interested in your thoughts on the topic, either way. Even if I don't agree with Yahoo's decision, I am glad it's spurred discussion of flexible arrangements and work-life balance. Such a conversation will be vital to our economy, our businesses and our families now and in the future.

Email your comments to kratzbalancingact@gmail.com or post them online at deseretnews.com. Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.

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