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Yahoo's elimination of remote work will hurt more than it will help

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27 2013 1:45 p.m. MST

This image released by NBC shows Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer appearing on NBC News' This image released by NBC shows Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer appearing on NBC News' "Today" show, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 in New York to introduce the website's redesign. (NBC NewsWire, AP Photo/NBC Peter Kramer/NBC)

Yahoo’s announcement prohibiting remote work for its employees drew criticism as soon as the decision was made public. Considering that Marissa Mayer was hired as CEO to help turn things around at Yahoo, it’s not too surprising that she’s making major changes. Yahoo didn’t hire Mayer to play Santa Claus.

But they didn’t hire her to revert to outdated business practices, either. Considering that Yahoo is a tech company, theoretically on the cutting edge of forward thinking, taking away remote work is the strategic equivalent of sending the company back to the dinosaur age.

In the '50s and '60s, the ideal worker was a man with a stay-at-home wife. The more he was at the office, the more productive he could be, because that’s where work was done in the days before email and downloadable software. The worker who came in early and turned off the lights at night was obviously the most dedicated.

That’s just not true anymore. Many women work, and most can't afford to hire a nanny so they can work long hours at the office. Men experience even more work-life conflict than women. And is there an employee on the planet that looks forward to the daily commute?

To be sure, some people don’t work as quickly or effectively at home. Electronic devices, pets, children and refrigerators can pull employees’ eyes away from the computer screen.

But being at the office doesn’t necessarily equate with productivity, either. Distractions at work, from Facebook to the water cooler to pointless meetings, can interrupt work just as easily as the cable guy ringing the doorbell.

If Yahoo is after increased productivity and profits, the company would do better to increase flexibility and remote work rather than eliminate it. Evidence shows that telecommuting increases productivity, job satisfaction, employee engagement, and loyalty, all the while decreasing absenteeism, stress and turnover. That translates into a major boost to the bottom line.

Employees recognize this, too. Some employees say they would even take a pay cut if it meant they could have more flexibility. Flexibility is trending upward — about 25 percent of American workers work from home at least some of the time.

It’s quite likely that Yahoo was bleeding productivity hours due to unreliable at-home workers prior to this announcement. Some sources indicate that Yahoo wasn’t doing a great job of managing its telework program and that employees were abusing their privileges. So naturally, without good management, the program didn’t do well.

Work/life programs, including remote work, need to be managed well in order to succeed. Fixing Yahoo’s remote work program would require some time, and the savings might not be immediately obvious. Short-term, shareholders might even be pleased to see Yahoo cracking the whip.

But if Yahoo is serious about running business in the black over the long term, Mayer should be doing the exact opposite of what she’s doing now. Most employers know there’s a compelling business case for remote work, and they aren’t granting flexibility because they’re feeling particularly generous. They know remote work creates profits. And if Yahoo is after the same thing, it would make a lot more sense to follow the flexibility trend than to abandon it.

My website, familyfriendlywork.org, is a resource to help people find a way to balance their work and family lives. The site helps employees, students and business people identify and implement workplace solutions.

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