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Home working: Marissa Mayer's Yahoo! move isn't unusual

There may be a managerial problem at yahoo we don't know about

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Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer made a splash in the news by changing the company's policy on working from home. In a memo leaked to All Things D, Yahoo! told its employees:

"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. […] Beginning in June, we're asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices. If this impacts you, your management has already been in touch with next steps. And, for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration."

Observers have pilloried the move. Forbes.com asked the question "Back To the Stone Age? New Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer Bans Working From Home." TheAtlantic.com quickly chimed in with "Marissa Mayer Is Wrong: Working From Home Can Make You More Productive."

I'm certainly sympathetic to the questions being raised by these observers: This is 2013, isn't working from home critical to information workers in most industries? Certainly that's my gut inclination.

But let's look at some data here. Mayer's policy isn't out of the ordinary - not at all - if we benchmark her policy against other enterprises. Forrester's Forrsights Workforce Employee Survey (Q4 2012) surveyed 9,766 information workers (employed individuals who use a PC or mobile phone at least one hour per day for work). We found national-level variation in work from home behaviors: While 17% of information workers in the US work from home 2+ days per week, only 8% of those in France and Japan do so. Among developed nations, Canada ranked highest with 19%... which still represents fewer than 1 in 5 information workers.

What this means is that, in advanced economies, being a heavy (2+ days per week) home worker remains relatively rare.

Some top arguments in favour of work-from home policies include higher productivity (as workers balance their work with their lives more efficiently, and can add hours by taking work home), increased employee recruitment (as top calibre candidates might live remotely or simply expect the flexibility associated with working from home), and lower employee attrition (for the same reasons). For some workers, working from home can help them establish a sense of uninterrupted work flow that increases their effectiveness and productivity while allowing them to juggle non-work priorities as well.

Though as Forbes points out, Yahoo! faces a comparative productivity challenge at present, writing that "Google's 53,861 employees generate $931,657 in revenue per worker, 170% higher than Yahoo's $344,758 worth of revenue per employee." For all the working from home today at Yahoo!, productivity hasn't reached the levels where they need to be.

It's possible that workforce-empowering technologies could have addressed this imbalance, allowing people to work from home more effectively. Perhaps leveraging the right technologies to make workers better connected to their colleagues every day -- whether they are in a remote office or with a client/supplier, or at home using current generation web and video conferencing. For most businesses, growing competency in managing and, indeed, empowering remote workers will be a key competency in the next 10 years. Particularly in the technology industry, the bar tends to be high here.

Ultimately, policies about working from home are situation-dependent: Mayer could be solving for a managerial problem at Yahoo! of which outsiders aren't aware. We should at a minimum acknowledge that Mayer's policy isn't quite as rare or unusual as many people seem to think. Whether it's wise or not remains to be seen.

Posted by JP Gownder

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