Is Yahoo's Decision a Sign That Remote Workers Are Becoming Extinct?

Amy Knapp

In a recently leaked memo, Yahoo exec Jackie Reses called all of the company’s remote employees back to the office effective June of this year, a controversial move for which Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has already taken a heavy dose of flack from Bloomberg, the New York Times, Forbes, even Richard Branson.

Wasn’t telecommuting supposed to be the future? Insurance company Aetna reported saving $78 million in real estate cost since it began encouraging employees to work from home and providing the tools to do so. 37signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier-Hansson wrote a hit book about their success with telecommuters. What’s changed?

Yahoo!’s Argument

“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” says Reses in her now infamous memo.  

Yahoo’s thinking is that these conversations are essential not only to the company’s growth and productivity (currently far outranked by Mayer’s former employer, Google) but also to Yahoo’s company culture, which, judging by the suspiciously upbeat nature of Reses’s memo, is seriously lacking.

The Counter-Argument

Employee backlash is mounting, with some publications already reporting the only employees who choose to stay will be employees that cannot find a more flexible employer elsewhere.

If the ability to telecommute was part of the employment package, it follows that Yahoo is set to lose a substantial amount of talent. Why the resistance? A recent study showed that employees who occasionally work outside the office find their job considerably more satisfying and enjoy better relationships with family members. Another study indicated a 13% productivity increase in employees who work from home. 

Telecommuters tend to be less stressed when the pressure of commuting is removed. 37signals founders Fried and Hansson also point out in Rework the when the issue of geography is removed, companies gain access to a much wider talent pool to draw from. What’s not to love?

The Real Issue

The practice of telecommuting is relatively new. Aetna may provide internet connections, phone lines, shredders and secure lockers to all of its telecommuting employees but that doesn’t mean all the kinks have been worked out. 

People crave human connection both in and out of the office. We need others to bounce our ideas off. Working from home may be an enticing prospect for those who spend hours in traffic each morning and evening, but it isn’t necessarily a blanket solution. Working alone is not ideal.

Surely there is some happy medium available to disgruntled, soon-to-be-former employees of Yahoo. Many freelancers and small businesses have solved the working-from-home problem by working together in groups at cafes or communal offices. (Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation is a shining example.) Shorter commute, office camaraderie and no unnecessary last-minute meetings. Everybody wins.

Let's remember that like every family, every company is different. Yahoo is widely considered a company with some amazing assets that has underperformed since it first bloomed of success. Marissa Mayer was brought in less than a year ago to take control. If SHE feels that closer collaboration is part of the culture that will once again let Yahoo reach new heights, she should be able to do that. If the Yahoo's who loved working remotely so much had been creating take-the-world-by-storm products this whole time, maybe this wouldn't be the hottest topic on the internet this week.


 Amy Knapp for InsideTrak


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