If you’ve read past posts, you know that for two years during the late 1990s, I telecommuted to a job in Northern Virginia from my house in the Boston area. The notion that anyone could, or should, work regularly from home wasn’t completely new, but the internet was making it feasible for more people. My managers let me do it because I had decided to move, didn’t want to quit, and they didn’t want me to quit either.
The performance measures were already in place: as a reporter, I had to write multiple stories every week, and break news. I had to call in for staff meetings. I had regular hours when I was expected to be working, and checking voice mail. Many of the steps we took then reflect the lessons that–15 years later–Joel Dobbs, CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group writes about here. So when I heard about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s new policy to forbid telecommuting (and according to reports, end rampant slacking off) it sounded like a red herring. A backdoor way to downsize. Or at least to get rid of people who, if managers had been doing their jobs, should have been disciplined and then fired if they didn’t perform.
I don’t know what went on inside Yahoo, other than what everyone is reading about it. Some jobs, and some employees, do require daily face time. And anyone who has worked on a multi-city team, or as an offsite contractor, knows that the occasional physical meeting builds personal connections that invest team members more deeply in each others’ success. When I was a telecommuter, and later when I managed telecommuters, I looked forward to meetings at the office.
But when business is global, and many employees, especially executives, travel all the time, it’s incongruous to argue that a vibrant, collaborative culture depends on everyone coming to the office every single day. If some subset of Yahoo employees abused telecommuting, it suggests managers didn’t set clear work rules and expectations for performance, or else didn’t enforce them. And If that’s the case, prohibiting work at home isn’t going to fix the problem.
Meanwhile, there’s the evidence that telecommuting, when the job is suited for it, improves productivity and may even save money. Some companies (including some of my clients) even operate virtually. People often turn to collaboration tools to communicate even when they’re in the same building. Or on the same floor. I’ll grant the latter is a bit lazy. But I’ve done it when IM gets me the information I need in the time it would take to walk across the building and back.
I hope that, at Yahoo, Mayer’s telecommuting ban is just a temporary measure. Otherwise, there’s a good chance she’ll drive away employees who are more productive and happy because telecommuting helps them manage their lives.