Yahoo tries to clear air after telecommuting uproar

Move to end work-at-home policy is just about Yahoo, company says

After creating a ruckus for calling all of its telecommuters back into the office, Yahoo is trying to quell some of the furor.

Yahoo last week issued a memo informing employees that the company was ending work-at-home arrangements. As of June, all Yahoo employees must work in a company office.

The decision, which became public and was widely reported in the media after the memo was leaked, caused a stir inside and outside the tech sector.

After days of headlines and speculation about whether the move would have a ripple effect throughout the tech industry, Yahoo issued a brief statement.

"This isn't a broad industry view on working from home," the company said in an email to Computerworld. "This is about what is right for Yahoo, right now."

With the rise of the Internet, and with many employees working nights and weekends, many businesses have embraced the idea that allowing employees to work from home, at least part of the time, is good for work-life balance. Moreover, telecommuters can spend more time working, since they don't have to drive or take public transportation to the office.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's new CEO, is throwing that conventional wisdom aside.

"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side," said a Yahoo HR memo obtained by All Things D. "That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together."

Since that message became public, a lot of people have been questioning Mayer's decision and the reasoning behind it, and that discussion has led to a dialogue about telecommuting in general.

"It is seen as very anti-employee and could, by itself, reverse Yahoo's recovery," said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group. "What it could do is drive employees away from the company and make it harder for Yahoo to hire. It also could decrease employee morale and productivity."

Yahoo's decision was a hot topic on Twitter, in the blogosphere and on TV news shows, with people vehemently agreeing and disagreeing with the new policy.

"This involves the Silicon Valley work style of working long and hard, but under flexible conditions," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research. "People were taking it pretty personally. But companies have a culture, and that culture changes over time. I wouldn't be surprised to find that Yahoo's culture had led to problems with remote workers."

While it's good to have an industrywide dialogue about human resources policies, Yahoo's decision is solely about Yahoo, said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

"For Yahoo, this may be a good move, as there must be something out of alignment," Moorhead said. "Only Yahoo knows what is good for Yahoo as it relates to work-at-home policies."

Moorhead said he doesn't expect Yahoo's decision to affect other tech companies.

"I don't think this has any wider implications," he added. "Yahoo is viewed as a company in trouble and in transition, so few companies will relate to it and take action in their own companies. If Google, Facebook or Microsoft issued the same kind of statement, it would impact other companies."

Other employers may not be quick to follow Yahoo's lead on telecommuting, and the new policy could lead to a tough transition for people who work at the Internet company.

"They will likely find, as others have, that making what should be first-line manager decisions from the top tends to go badly for a company," Enderle said. "It is actually a misuse of executive privilege. Decisions with regard to where employees work need to be kept close to the employee and be granular."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter, at @sgaudin, and on Google+, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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