The Hypocrisy in Yahoo’s Embargo on Flexible Work

Yahoo has become the talk of Twitter and Silicon Valley for its provocative move to terminate the option to telecommute, generating international debate over workplace flexibility. Critics advised that employee morale will plummet, Yahoo will lose key people, and Yahoo’s efforts to enhance collaboration will backfire.

There’s plenty of research that seems to support these grim predictions. In 2012, Regus conducted a survey globally with 16,000 senior executives. The survey found that flexible working helps companies overcome barriers for growth.

Yahoo is a fascinating case because it exposes the underlying tensions in the pattern of decentralising knowledge with employees working out of the office.

It assumes that employees who are not physically present are contributing less. Yet, numerous studies have revealed that employees working offsite, contribute more or the same as those working onsite. Actually, many work overtime to compensate for their lack of presence and also as a result of the access that technology has engendered.

There is the perceived benefit that organisations are able to acquire and leverage more value from employees who are ‘present’ in the office. However, while the Yahoo memo claims that “innovation, collaboration and interaction” are the outcome of being present at work, this assertion is not necessarily true.

The theory that extracting more time and presence from employees will increase productivity is misinformed and deceptive.  In the Regus survey, 72 per cent of respondents globally – 73 per cent in Australia – said their company is more productive as a direct result of flexible working.

A further 68 per cent believe that flexible working creates additional revenue bringing real, tangible results to support the case for flexible working.

Unquestionably, sometimes employees need to work extra hours to complete particular tasks or during certain project phases, but creating an organisational culture that demands continuous presence can lead to a poor sense of wellbeing and ineffectiveness.

Apart from the business benefit, the Regus study confirms that 58 per cent of employees globally – 63 per cent of Australians – believe that they feel more energised and motivated, highlighting that flexible working practices are also a key talent retention tool.

Flexible ways of working are becoming the norm globally, driving economic growth and accommodating for work and family demands, thus improving employment opportunities for all.

The demand for flexibility no longer comes only from working mothers. It comes from working fathers; from people who want to do further study; mature workers who want to gradually transition into retirement; and from Australians who have carer responsibilities.

Thus, Yahoo’s decision is inherently inequitable. For some employees, chiefly those with carer responsibilities, they will miss out on the very opportunities that enabled them to work, participate and innovate in the first place.

It is not surprising that among the top 100 companies on Forbes’ 2012 list of the best companies to work for, 84 offer telecommuting benefits.

So what is really behind this recent reaction against supporting flexible working? Employees say Mayer made the decision to resolve problems particular to Yahoo not as a blanket statement against working remotely.

”Morale was terrible because the company was thought to be dying,” said a former Yahoo manager. ”When you have a workforce that is not terribly motivated, it built bad habits over years.”

Yahoo had become an organisation full of directionless employees with low morale, where a bloated administration had made Yahoo uncompetitive: ”In the tech world it was such a bummer to say you worked for Yahoo,” said a former senior employee.

It has also been suggested that Mayer was looking to get rid of unproductive workers without the costs associated with redundancies.

What is clear is that Yahoo’s reaction is unlikely to resolve the issues acknowledged in the memo as it doesn’t focus on where and how these attributes are shaped.

From an employee perspective, it may feel that by demanding presence in the office, management is attempting to extricate more time and energy from them through surveillance.

Moreover, it seems to be a regressive step in the expansion of flexible work options that are proven to be beneficial for organisations and their employees.

At Cisco, for example, teleworking is encouraged, generating an estimated annual savings of $277 million in productivity.  A 2008 internal survey found that 75 per cent felt the timeliness of their work was improved, and 83 per cent said their ability to communicate and collaborate was the same as, if not better than, it was when working on site.

If productivity and collaboration are really the issue, then Yahoo’s problem may not be employees working from home, but perhaps managers who lack the knowledge and skills to implement flexibility in a way that benefits both individuals and the company.


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