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Why Yahoo's telecommuting ban is still bad for business

With 63 percent of businesses now supporting telecommuting, CEO Marissa Mayer digs in on her controversial ban against working from home.

Last week, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was interviewed at the Wired Business Conference on a range of topics, but the question on everyone's mind (including interviewer Steven Levy) was her impossibly unpopular edict against telecommuting.

I surely don't have to rehash what happened when Mayer enacted the New Law against working from home. It was eventually reported that she allegedly caught wind of it when she determined people weren't logged into the company VPN for enough hours of the day to be "working." The backlash has sparked a furious debate on the merits of WFH, and whether Mayer has it right or is simply another victim of CEO paranoia, convinced her employees are "ripping her off" by slacking when they should be grinding out work at their desks.

Last week Mayer attempted to clarify her position, arguing that it had been misinterpreted and that Yahoos can still work from home, provided it is at night or on the weekend. (Hey, thanks!) She then gave an example of how a new mobile app called Yahoo Weather (it tells you the weather) came to be. Yahoo's newly collaborative environment, she said, made it possible for someone from the Weather team and someone from the Flickr team to encounter one another serendipitously on the Yahoo campus. And that's the magic of how the app came to be.

But the most important thing Mayer said is that she isn't particularly against telecommuting, just that it is "not right for us, right now." She has a point. Telecommuting doesn't work for 100 percent of companies 100 percent of the time, but the positioning is a little ironic given Mayer's earlier decisions as CEO. As one of her first orders of business last year, she gave every employee a new smartphone. In her announcement to staff, she explained the generosity saying, "We'd like our employees to have devices similar to our users, so we can think and work as the majority of our users do."

Well, not exactly. Sixty-three percent of employers now allow workers to telecommute, according to the Families and Work Institute. That figure that has nearly doubled in the last eight years. Yahoo's users can work from home, but its workers can't. It's an increasingly unsustainable position, and Mayer's resolve behind it is simply out of step with reality.

Sure, we can all understand why any company would want to keep its workers under lock and key. A few bad apples always spoil the WFH bunch, disappearing for hours or cutting out early with regularity. It's a problem just like folks stealing printer paper or Facebooking on company time--and is best solved by careful hiring and firing, not the institution of draconian terms of employment that impact the people who play by the rules.

As small business is concerned, telecommuting is becoming not only a popular option, but an essential means to compete. Virtual workforces are making innumerable businesses possible that can't afford traditional office space or can't find qualified workers in the area, and the ability to manage a mobile, remote workforce is now de rigueur for any business leader. Failure to offer telecommuting perks limits the overall size of your employee pool, too.If it isn't obvious, I take personal umbrage against the policy. I worked for Yahoo as a daily blogger for over four years, almost exclusively from home. I stepped into the corporate offices in Sunnyvale maybe five times total, and I figure I saved well over two thousand hours of driving time during those years by being able to telecommute. I'm afraid to consider the money I would have spent on gas, the lost productivity, and the toll all that driving would have taken on my sanity--and I can also sympathize with those Yahoos who couldn't deal with the corporate VPN, a buggy thorn in my side that I avoided whenever possible.

The irony is that Yahoo knows all this. Its future lies completely on mobility, with Mayer herself calling getting Yahoo on every mobile device the company's "moonshot." Apps like Yahoo Weather are, I guess, a step in that direction, but I'd be concerned about the deeper issues a no-telecommuting policy might be covering up.

If people running into each other in the hallway is the only way problems are solved at your business, you've got bigger problems than whether someone works at home one day a week.


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