Maybe Yahoo is right about telecommuting

It might be that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to end telecommuting is serving as a layoff-by-other-means. It will put some employees in untenable positions. But it is also possible that Mayer wants to shock Yahoo out of its lethargy and avoid future layoffs.

What is clear is that Mayer is going against an orthodoxy that worships telecommuting. This includes telecommuting's White House supporters.  

Teleworking “can produce resource savings and reduce time, expenses, and greenhouse gas production associated with commuting,” wrote former White House chief of staff Jacob Lew in a 2011 memo, in an effort to encourage telecommuting at federal agencies. He is now the treasury secretary nominee.

But does telecommuting actually increase productivity? Are telecommuters overwhelmingly happier?  Are companies that allow large numbers of people to telecommute more successful?

In the popular press and in business journals, “it is almost impossible to find negative comments about telecommuting,” wrote Stephen Ruth, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, in a research paper.  “But there are hundreds of studies in the academic literature. While many of these studies show slightly favorable outcomes for telecommuting, few give enthusiastic, unstinting, unreserved approbation.”

One of the risks that Ruth’s paper, The Dark Side of Telecommuting – Is a Tipping Point Approaching?, considers is what happens as telecommuting is made available to a much broader workforce.

Expanding telecommuting may bring problems, particularly as increasing numbers of employees are dislocated from a workspace, or ping ponged from their homes to temporary office arrangements as employers cut office spaces to save money.   Ruth raises many important questions, some of which may be relevant to Yahoo.  

If a person is significantly more successful while telecommuting, “what behaviors can be expected when she or he is back at the office?” Several studies show reduced productivity once back in “normal” space, notes Ruth.

In 2006, Hewlett-Packard’s IT department did something similar to Yahoo. HP was in the midst of consolidating its data centers and applications when it announced a change in its telecommuting policy. It told employees that it wanted “to facilitate face-to-face interaction and increase team effectiveness.”

At that time, HP’s CIO was Randy Mott who is now CIO of GM’s operations.

At GM, Mott is radically restructuring IT operations. He’s taking what had been largely outsourced model and insourcing it. GM is hiring some 10,000 IT workers.

Telecommuting shares a lot in common with outsourcing. Both require a means for collaboration and remote project management.  The tools they use can be similar.  It is no coincidence that offshore outsourcing, in particular, and telecommuting both came of age over roughly the same time frame.  

Yahoo believes that employees need to be working “side by side” to be successful. That’s a powerful argument to make and very similar to the criticism leveled against the offshore outsourcing of increasingly complex IT services.

Is new thinking about the benefits of insourcing leading to a reappraisal of telecommuting? Mayer may not be an outlier on telecommuting.        

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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