Yahoo’s telework ban doesn’t stand up to scrutiny

 Yahoo’s   recent decision to ban working from home  raises some interesting business questions: What do you need to make a corporate culture work? How do ideas propagate through a business? And most importantly, what are the necessary tools that bind corporate culture and the free flow of ideas?

Many observers see Yahoo’s telecommuting ban as a retrenchment for the beleaguered company, which has recently reduced its workforce by nearly 20 percent — down to 11,500 from some 14,100 at the end of 2011.

For Yahoo’s corner office executives, it’s an issue of corporate culture that’s driving the need to keep employees on-site. In a memo written by Yahoo EVP of People and Development Jackie Reses, the HR chief says, “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will need to be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. 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," the Reses memo continues. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."

It’s ironic that a company with its own branded IM product, video channel and web engine – tools many use for telecommuting – should feel that its own people can’t be adequately creative outside of the Yahoo hive. More to the point, the idea is patently non-scaling.

Yahoo simply can't expect all employees to work from their offices. After all, Yahoo has offices in 20 separate countries, and it is not unlikely that many of these employees work cooperatively on projects. Conversations among offices have to be at least as important as conversations within offices.

For employees working together on teams but not necessarily located within the same facility, the alternatives to teleworking are fairly slim. Certainly Yahoo is not going to spend more money on travel to bring people from their far-flung offices together for frequent meetings. Even if the company could afford it, it’s simply impractical.

More to the point, if Yahoo wants people to work harder and smarter, doing away with telecommuting is not really the answer. In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted a survey concluding that telecommuting has “become instrumental in the general expansion of work hours, facilitating workers needs for additional work time beyond the standard workweek, and/or the ability of employers to increase or intensify work demands on their salaried employees.”

In short, telecommuters actually work harder because they are seen to be always available.

Yahoo’s argument for banning telecommuting seems to hinge on the notion of meetings, both formal and impromptu. Fair enough. Let’s consider why people actually go to meetings. Meetings allow people to share information with others, ensure that there is a mutual understanding of that information, and to develop strategies and tactics based on that information.

In fact, sharing information is not the main point; that can be done easily enough by email. It really is the give-and-take of using that information, providing direction and making sure that direction is plainly understood. Yahoo knows that cannot be done effectively over e-mail or web conference.

If Yahoo accepts the fact that audio conferencing, web conferencing and e-mail are not enough, I’d argue that the missing piece to connect people in an effective collaborative work environment is video conferencing.

Today’s video conferencing solutions are focused on creating a collaborative environment as close to in-person as makes no difference. Meetings can be set up formally or ad hoc. The visual benefit of in-person meetings is not lost. And documents can be exchanged virtually in real-time, so information is always at everyone’s fingertips.

In fact, although Yahoo’s argument of the benefit of work on-site seems well-reasoned, it doesn’t really bear up under scrutiny. Whether from the standpoint of corporate culture, the creative benefit of meetings, or communication and collaboration, the proper technical tools exist to make teleworkers as effective as their desk-bound brethren.