Earlier this year Yahoo took the surprising move to ban working from home (WFH) for every one of its employees. In doing so it raised a number of interesting 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?
Some may argue that Yahoo’s telecommuting ban is part of a broader move to down size. The company recently reduced its workforce by nearly 20 per cent – down to 11,500 from some 14,100 at the end of 2011.
But there may be more to it than that. 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.'
These comments makes it quite clear: it’s about the business culture. The queen bee wants to have all her workers in the hive, right?
'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 – feels that its own people can’t be adequately creative outside of the Yahoo hive.
Let’s start with practicalities. Yahoo simply can't expect all employees to work from their offices. After all, Yahoo has offices in 20 separate countries so many of these employees may work cooperatively on projects.
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.
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 are the busy bees. They 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. 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
· 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. If Yahoo believes that audio conferencing, web conferencing and e-mail are not enough, I’d argue (as of course I would) that the missing piece to connect people in a collaborative work environment is video conferencing.
Today’s video conferencing solutions are focused on creating a collaborative environment. You can exchange documents in near-real time, so information is always at everyone’s fingertips, you can schedule meetings ad hoc, record them etc. So whether you are in the room or at home with slippers on, it just doesn’t matter. Plus, the bee queen doesn’t lose control of her bees. Win-win for everyone.
Yahoo’s argument of the benefit of work on-site may seem well reasoned. However, it doesn’t really bear up under scrutiny. Corporate culture, the creative benefit of meetings, or communication and collaboration, all those arguments are just a buzz. The truth is teleworkers may be as effective as their desk-bound brethren. You just need to be smart about it and use the right tools.
Simon Dudley is a consultant at videoconferencing provider LifeSize Communications