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Maybe a Work-From-Home Ban Isn't Such a Bad Idea

Did Yahoo do the right thing? Will it kill employee morale? Is it right for your company? If you put aside all the moral outrage, the answers are relatively straightforward.
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Everyone on Planet Earth knows about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's work-from-home ban. And everyone's got an opinion. Either it's a throwback to the dark days that will kill employee morale or it's what Yahoo desperately needs to spark innovation and improve productivity.

To me, the debate comes down to three questions:

1. Was this the right thing for Yahoo to do?

2. Is it the right thing for other companies to do?

3. Is there a bigger issue here, one of employee rights, perhaps?

To answer those questions, it helps to ignore all the hoopla and moral outrage and just deal with observable reality. To that end, I've come up with some general Q&A that will help us get to the bottom of things:

Are teams more effective in person than they are with some members working remotely? In just about every case I can think of, absolutely, without question. In terms of cooperation, innovation, effectiveness, decision-making, productivity--in every way I can think of--there can be no benefit in having some people working from home either part-time or full-time. That doesn't mean they can't or shouldn't, it just means what it says--that groups are more effective in person.

Are all teams and functions in every company affected equally when some members work from home? Of course not. While it's always better to have everyone there in person, some teams and functions in some companies won't be affected much, some teams and functions in some companies will see a tremendous drop in one or more of the metrics mentioned above, and then there's everything in between. Moreover, when there are deadlines to meet, you want the group to operate at peak effectiveness.

Does working from home benefit employees, either personally or in terms of their careers? Personally, sure. You can get more personal stuff done at home than you can at the office. Career-wise, absolutely not. Face-time is key to climbing the corporate ladder. You have to be around if you want to get promoted. That's absolute.

With those answers in mind, now we can easily answer the burning questions that everyone's gotten all worked up about.

1. Was this the right thing for Yahoo to do?

When a company's in trouble, it needs the best from its employees. Having everyone at work, in the flesh, will serve that purpose. As for morale, it can actually go either way. If employees want what's best for their company, as they should, they have to see this as a good thing. If not, I don't think Yahoo is losing much if they quit.

Moreover, if Mayer and Yahoo's other top executives didn't think this was a problem, they wouldn't have changed the policy. So yes, I think it was the right move.

2. Is it the right thing for other companies to do?

Not necessarily. To me, it comes down to this. Unless the company's in big trouble, I see no reason for such draconian measures as a company-wide policy banning telecommuting. Since there are so many variables involved, as we discussed above, then why not let individual managers make the call? Then just hold them accountable for results. That's what I would do.

As for individual group decisions, it's pretty simple. For functions where it's much better to have folks there in person, managers should at least set reasonable telecommuting limits, especially when the group has deadlines to meet. For functions where it's no big deal to have people work from home either part-time or full-time, especially when the sense of urgency is low, then I think more latitude makes sense.

Moreover, some individuals will be more productive working from home than others. It actually puts more of a burden on manager's to supervise people working from home, but as long as they're willing to monitor their at-home employees a little more closely to ensure they're getting things done, that's their call.

3. Is there a bigger issue here, one of employee rights, perhaps?

Do I see any laws that need to be passed on this? No. There are simply too many variables. It's not like we're talking about discrimination, maximum hours in a workweek, or the need for minimum wage, lunch breaks, and all that. We already have all the laws we need.

So no, I don't see any reason for morale outrage on the subject.

IMAGE: mrlerone/Flickr
Last updated: Feb 28, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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