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The End of Workplace Flexibility?

Vivia Chen

February 26, 2013

Lossy-page1-619px-Photograph_of_the_Division_of_Classification_and_Cataloging,_1937.tifSo much for the hope that young leaders will revolutionize the workplace!

In case you missed it (The New York Times put it on the front-page, "above the fold"), Yahoo! Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer is banning employees from working from home.

Judging from the comments in the blogsphere, Mayer is not getting many brownie points for good management (the exception was Donald Trump, who tweeted his support for Mayer's action, according to The Wall Street Journal.)

Why is one of the youngest CEOs of a major company (Mayer is 38) taking this retro measure? Here is how Yahoo's HR department explained it in a memo leaked by "a plethora of very irked Yahoo employees" to tech website AllThingsD:

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. 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. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Are you barfing yet? I can overlook corporate pukisms like "absolute best place to work," "one Yahoo!," and "working side-by-side," but I find it hard to swallow that "speed and quality" suffer when people work from home. (According to a University of Texas study, employees who work remotely put in more hours—sometimes five to seven hours more per week, reports the WSJ.)

As someone who churns out about 3,000 words a week mainly from my dining room table, I know I'm far more productive than I would be if I had to sit in my cubicle listening to my colleagues conducting phone interviews, making doctors' appointments, or berating their loved ones. What's more, I start my workday far earlier—about 8:15 in the morning—working virtually nonstop from home until I drag myself into the office in the afternoon (by that time, I'm desperate to see another human being).

Look, I'm not denying that there are benefits to face-to-face interactions. John Sullivan, who teaches management at San Francisco State University, told the Times: “If you want innovation, then you need interaction. If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.”

Arguably, a tech company like Yahoo needs the collective creative juices of its employees in one room to come up with something brilliant. I can accept that premise. That said, Mayer's ban on all remote working arrangements seems draconian and clumsy. It certainly can't be good for morale. And if morale is bad, I can't imagine that will help productivity.

Which brings us to law firms, which are rarely renowned for high morale. Indeed, Mayer's stance on this issue seems so disdainful of employee autonomy that you'd think she was running a law firm. Ironically, though, law firms might actually be more progressive: So long as you're billing, who the hell cares where you do it from?

Related post: Flexibility for Me, Not Thee.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected]

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There are more options than full time at home or full time in the office. I've led the development of Intel's successful telecommuting program, which allowed one fixed weekday at home, and it proved a clear Win/Win for both company and employees, with gains all around in productivity and quality of life. The thing to remember is that you need a well designed telecommuting PROGRAM, not just letting people stay at home. For my detailed observations about this see http://bit.ly/WFHNZ .

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Hi there,
I just wanted to add to this conversation and state that inasmuch as Marissa wants to overhaul Yahoo, she risks doing this at the detriment of worker morale. Yahoo is all about creativity, and creative people don't like being boxed into cubicles. Let's see what the numbers say after six months of this new policy.

Work is - well work. The man (or woman) who writes the paychecks sets the rules. Don't like rules? Work for yourself and set your own rules. Why is anyone surprised?

The pendulum is beginning to shift. As a mother and shareholder, there is an obvious need for flexibility. I have never been a hardliner on "face time" but I find it increasingly annoying how colleagues work more and more from home and are simply not around to assist with the daily tasks that ensure "speed and quality" in a law practice.

So she'd rather have people missing days and weeks of work at a time due to child-related issues because of her antiquated insistence on face time? Never heard of Skype?

No wonder Yahoo's tanking.

There were further reports that Marissa Mayer recently paid to have an in-office nursery built for her personal use. She has not released anything to say that on-site daycare will be provided to those work-at-homers who did so because they are also parents. I find it incredibly interesting that the woman recently heralded for her achievements both professionally and personally is drawing a line that severely inhibits those who want to be career-women and parents.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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