Since Marissa Mayer became chief executive of Yahoo, she has been
working hard to get the Internet pioneer off its deathbed and make it an
innovator once again.
She started with free food and new smartphones
for every employee, borrowing from the playbook of Google, her employer
until last year. Now, though, Yahoo has made a surprise move abolishing
its work-at-home policy and ordering everyone to work in the office.
memo explaining the policy change, from the company's human resources
department, says face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more
collaborative culture - a hallmark of Google's approach to its
In trying to get back on track, Yahoo is taking on one
of the country's biggest workplace issues whether the ability to work
from home, and other flexible arrangements, leads to greater
productivity or inhibits innovation and collaboration. Across the
country, companies like Aetna, Booz Allen Hamilton and Zappos.com are
confronting these trade-offs as they compete to attract and retain the
Bank of America, for example, which had a popular
program for working remotely, decided late last year to require
employees in certain roles to come back to the office.
especially younger ones, expect to be able to work remotely, analysts
say. And over all the trend is toward greater workplace flexibility.
said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray &
Christmas, an outplacement and executive coaching firm, "A lot of
companies are afraid to let their workers work from home some of the
time or all of the time because they're afraid they'll lose control."
show that people who work at home are significantly more productive but
less innovative, said John Sullivan, a professor of management at San
Francisco State University who runs a human resource advisory firm.
you want innovation, then you need interaction," he said. "If you want
productivity, then you want people working from home."
these tensions, Yahoo's policy change has unleashed a storm of criticism
from advocates for workplace flexibility who say it is a retrograde
approach, particularly for those who care for young children or aging
parents outside of work. Their dismay is heightened by the fact that
they hoped Ms. Mayer, who became chief executive at 37 while pregnant
with her first child, would make the business world more hospitable for
"The irony is that she has broken the glass
ceiling, but seems unwilling for other women to lead a balanced life in
which they care for their families and still concentrate on developing
their skills and career," said Ruth Rosen, a professor emerita of
women's history at the University of California.
But not only
women take advantage of workplace flexibility policies. According to the
Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly as many men telecommute.
bureau says 24 percent of employed Americans report working from home at
least some hours each week. And 63 percent of employers said last year
that they allowed employees to work remotely, up from 34 percent in
2005, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute, a
nonprofit group studying the changing work force.
recession, the institute expected employers to demand more face time,
but instead found that 12 percent increased workplace flexibility, said
Ellen Galinsky, its president and co-founder. She attributed this to
companies' desire to reduce real estate costs, carbon footprints and
Technologies developed in Silicon Valley, from
video chat to instant messaging, have made it possible for employees
across America to work remotely. Yet like Yahoo, many tech companies
believe that working in the same physical space drives innovation.
A Yahoo spokeswoman, Sara Gorman, declined to comment, saying only that the company did not publicly discuss internal matters.
company's memo, written by Jackie Reses, director of human resources at
Yahoo, and published on All Things D, a blog on digital issues, said:
"Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria
discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings. Speed and
quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."
In part, the
memo looks like an effort to bring a Google spirit to Yahoo, said Colin
Gillis, an analyst at BGC Partners who covers both companies.
trying to increase the energy and output and change the culture of the
company," he said. "She brings all the Google lessons to the table, and
Google is very focused on having your life revolve around their campus
so you can spend a significantly larger chunk of time at work."
Google, as well as Facebook, does allow people to work remotely on a
case-by-case basis. But both companies also strongly stress in-person
Standard Silicon Valley perks like cafeterias with
free food, shuttle buses, gyms, ice cream parlors and dry cleaners not
only make employees' lives easier, but keep them on campus during the
day and promote contact with other employees. Nearly all tech companies
have desks packed tightly together without walls and communal work areas
with sofas and beanbags.
Zappos, the e-commerce company owned by
Amazon.com, previously allowed some customer service agents to work from
home, but now has a rule against working remotely. The company locks
all office doors except one so employees are forced to run into more
people on the way out, and budgets fewer than 100 square feet per
employee, versus the standard 120 square feet or more.
maximize those serendipitous encounters," said Zach Ware, who oversees
campus development at the company. "The success of our company is built
on our culture, and our perspective is you can't really do that on
Some companies outside the tech industry are also
re-evaluating flexible work arrangements. In addition to Bank of
America, certain industries that deal with sensitive client information,
like health care and finance, have more restrictions on working
Yet more companies embrace flexibility. At Aetna, 47
percent of workers telecommute, up from 9 percent in 2005. The company
provides secure Internet and phone connections, locked file cabinets and
shredders. During that period, the policy has saved the company $78
million in real estate costs, said Susan Millerick, an Aetna
At Booz Allen, employees can work at home or sign up
to work at a desk in another branch, called "hoteling." The policy has
been vital to employee retention, said Christopher Carlson, a senior
associate in human resources at Booz Allen. He works from his home in
Florida, where he moved from the Washington, D.C., region to care for
his aging parents.
"It allows me to integrate my work and life and be successful at both," Mr. Carlson said. "And I spend less money on gas."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service