Marissa Mayer’s Move To End Working From Home At Yahoo! Isn't Completely Unusual

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer made a splash in the news by changing the company’s policy on working from home. In a memo leaked to All Things D, Yahoo! told its employees:

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will 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. […] Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration.”

Observers have pilloried the move. Forbes.com asked the question “Back To the Stone Age? New Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer Bans Working From Home.” TheAtlantic.com quickly chimed in with “Marissa Mayer Is Wrong: Working From Home Can Make You More Productive.”

I’m certainly sympathetic to the questions being raised by these observers: This is 2013, isn’t working from home critical to information workers in most industries? Certainly that’s my gut inclination.

But let’s look at some data here. Mayer’s policy isn’t out of the ordinary – not at all – if we benchmark her policy against other enterprises.  Forrester’s Forrsights Workforce Employee Survey (Q4 2012) surveyed 9,766 information workers (employed individuals who use a PC or mobile phone at least one hour per day for work). We found national-level variation in work from home behaviors: While 17% of information workers in the US work from home 2+ days per week, only 8% of those in France and Japan do so. Among developed nations, Canada ranked highest with 19%... which still represents fewer than 1 in 5 information workers.

What this means is that, in advanced economies, being a heavy (2+ days per week) home worker remains relatively rare.

Some top arguments in favor of work-from home policies include higher productivity (as workers balance their work with their lives more efficiently, and can add hours by taking work home), increased employee recruitment (as top caliber candidates might live remotely or simply expect the flexibility associated with working from home), and lower employee attrition (for the same reasons). For some workers, working from home can help them establish a sense of uninterrupted work flow that increases their effectiveness and productivity while allowing them to juggle non-work priorities as well.

Though as Forbes points out, Yahoo! faces a comparative productivity challenge at present, writing that “Google’s 53,861 employees generate $931,657 in revenue per worker, 170% higher than Yahoo’s $344,758 worth of revenue per employee.” For all the working from home today at Yahoo!, productivity hasn’t reached the levels where they need to be.

It’s possible that workforce-empowering technologies could have addressed this imbalance, allowing people to work from home more effectively. Perhaps leveraging the right technologies to make workers better connected to their colleagues every day -- whether they are in a remote office or with a client/supplier, or at home using current generation web and video conferencing. For most businesses, growing competency in managing and, indeed, empowering remote workers will be a key competency in the next 10 years. Particularly in the technology industry, the bar tends to be high here.

Ultimately, policies about working from home are situation-dependent: Mayer could be solving for a managerial problem at Yahoo! of which outsiders aren’t aware. We should at a minimum acknowledge that Mayer's policy isn’t quite as rare or unusual as many people seem to think. Whether it’s wise or not remains to be seen.

Comments

Yahoo Work From Home Change - Interesting News

We've had some recent changes to a similar policy in which our group had one day per week to work at home versus the two at Yahoo. I think our European VP had thoughts about just how productive we might be away from the office.

For me having the option to work from home once a week allowed me be more productive in a corporate culture that is meeting heavy during the work day. Without it, I am finding it tough to manage the workload.

That said, I wonder if company productivity is function of diminishing returns with more guaranteed days working at home, or if it is the style of the policy itself? For example if employees are allowed to flex work from home days and the policy does not specify how many per week (rather how many per month/quarter) staff may be more productive since the choice would revolve around balancing both work and home needs for the employee and their manager as needed? I think the guaranteed amount of days per week for employees probably does lend itself to lower productivity over time, and that variety in working environment naturally lends itself to break through ideas and actions.

Hi Chris -- I agree that

Hi Chris -- I agree that there are cases where work flexibility makes educated workers more productive. No doubt; the future includes at least some classes of workers with flexible, mobile, and remote characteristics. And the right technologies can allow I&O professionals to empower them optimally. I did think it interesting that Marissa Mayer received so much criticism, though, when having employees work 2+ days from home a week is not mainstream yet.

I like your point about how companies can tweak the specifications to optimize productivity. I'll add that to the research hypothesis list! j. p.

I don't think we are in an

I don't think we are in an era yet where one approach is better than the other in all circumstances. If a company has a strong sense of identity, has an established cultural base, and has hired employees who have the self-starter gene then I think having a large part of the workforce at home may be a great cultural advantage. If a company is missing any of those pieces they may stumble badly if most are working from home. In that case, a company adrift may stay adrift.

I say this as someone who works at home, loves it, and works harder than he would if he also had to deal with commuting every day.

Agreed

Gary, I agree. And let me be clear: I think that over the next decade, figuring out which classes of workers are appropriately stationed remotely will be important for many companies. But as you wrote, it's not as if "one approach is better than the other in all circumstances." The New York Times today said that some Yahoo! employees who worked from home were starting up their own businesses while being paid at Yahoo! -- if true, one can see why Mayer wouldn't want employees to remain at home.

Cultural Differences

Workers in other countries may work from home less but what I don't see in the survey is comparison of what working from home is really about: quality of life. A French worker may come into the office every day but my gut would say that they are happier than the average American worker. I think in order to really measure the difference in this policy you have to zoom out more.