A few blog posts back, I had applauded Yahoo's decision to appoint Marissa Mayer as the CEO. They had the courage to appoint a person as the CEO without discriminating on the basis of her status as an expecting mother.
Today, as Marissa Mayer's now famous decision to ban work from home at Yahoo gets discussed, criticized, analysed and talked about in multiple forums, I join the other voices in questioning the need for such a drastic step and the message it conveys.
Granted, there could be deeper business reasons behind this decision, need for improving the culture of innovation and bringing in more collaboration in the company.
But I see quite a few issues with the method and the message.
1. Confused definitions: Work from home should not be confused with flexibility at work: Traditional work from home - permanent telecommuters or people who have formal work from home agreements with their employers including a fixed number of days at office and a fixed number of days at home should not be confused with work flexibility.
Work flexibility is not a permanent work from home arrangement. It is use of productive time from home on days when certain exigencies arise such as kids not being well or daycare holidays and other such requirements which many employees might face once in a while, but not regularly. During such situations, when an employee is broadly productive but forced to be at home isn't it better to use the time productively in completing work which might be pending rather than banning all forms of flexibility?
2. Forgetting the impact of technology: Even if we ban work from home or work flexibility, can we any longer live in the age when we have defined office hours and we could switch off completely from work after returning home? In most cases and roles, due to increased use of technology and need for working across geographies and time zones, the work day stretches far beyond the usual designated 8-9 hours. And most employees who are engaged in their work and appreciate their company's trust in them, use the time and flexibility to extend their work day and get more done, often, from home, over and above their fully productive office hours, even if they have no formal work from home arrangement.
3. Empowering people: Some of the companies which routinely feature in the best places to work for such as Intel, Cisco, SAS, Accenture, IBM, etc. reportedly allow employees to work from home at least 20% of the time. Other companies such as Hewlett Packard may not have a very formal work from home policy but allow employees and managers to use their discretion and trust their decisions. In fact, one of the recent articles I read about Marissa's policy, actually ended on this note. By banning all work from home, isn't Yahoo saying that is incapable of basic managerial controls? What happened to empowering employees and having accountable managers? Shouldn't they be able to decide what works and what doesn't and draw the boundaries depending on role requirements?
4. At office but not at work: What is the guarantee that if all employees are in office and there is 0% work from home, that there will be increased collaboration and innovation? Can we even assume increased productivity? Some recent studies point to the fact that even though innovation might increase with more face time with other colleagues, productivity is definitely more with work from home. If more employees are on Facebook and Youtube in office, what are we gaining? Will forced work from office end up with newer issues to solve - lack of seats, no space in parking lots, long canteen queues, lack of meeting rooms and increased traffic to and fro from office?
Finally, what is the message we are giving parents? Mother and fathers alike? For many of them, flexibility could be a deciding criterion between choosing or rejecting a job. Are we fine losing them from the workforce or we assume that they all have the money and means to set up nurseries for their children near office as Marissa Mayer has done?
If we are worried about potential misuse of work from home and flexibility, let’s take action targeted specifically at these. Let’s not bring up policies that look like they belonged to an earlier century and definitely do not seem to have come from the desk of a person, who many working mothers look up to as an ideal – a working mother herself, Marissa Mayer.
As a recent article stated – judge employees not by the face time but by the work they do. I guess, if we all start doing that, productivity and innovation are both bound to follow.