x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fresh look at telecommuting

Telecommuting, a growing trend in the American workplace, is coming under fresh scrutiny following news that Yahoo is curbing the practice.

All hands on deck: Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, California, has instructed its employees to work from the office and not from home. Tony Avelar / Bloomberg News
All hands on deck: Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, California, has instructed its employees to work from the office and not from home. Tony Avelar / Bloomberg News

Telecommuting, a growing trend in the American workplace, is coming under fresh scrutiny following news that Yahoo is curbing the practice.

The trend of working from home has been gaining steam for decades, as part of a workplace evolution that allows greater family-work balance and saves energy and commuting costs.

An internal Yahoo memo from the chief executive, Marissa Meyer, posted last week by The Wall Street Journal, said that employees will be required to come to their offices to "feel the energy and buzz" of the workplace.

"Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together," according to the report.

Asked about the memo, a Yahoo spokesman said: "We don't discuss internal matters", but essentially confirmed the news by saying: "This isn't a broad industry view on working from home - this is about what is right for Yahoo, right now."

The shift counters the overall trend: some 53 per cent of American employers offered flexible work options last year, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. A 2011 report by the US labour department found that 24 per cent of employed Americans reported that they work at least some hours at home each week.

The trend is particularly noticeable in IT firms, where companies take advantage of technology to have virtual access to what they would have at the office.

Cisco Systems, which develops virtual private networks for remote access, said 40 per cent of its employees are not in the same city as their manager, and the average employee telecommutes two days a week.

IBM, another strong telework advocate, said that 29 per cent of its 128,000 employees participated in a flex-work or work-at-home programme, and that in 2011, in the United States alone, this saved 24.2 million litres of petrol and avoided more than 50,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.

The move by Yahoo "goes against the grain of where a lot of organisations are going today", said Cindy Auten, the general manager of Mobile Work Exchange, a public-private partnership that promotes telework.

"This is especially important in the tech industry; they are focused on recruiting and retaining the best and brightest."

Ms Auten said telework is "a huge recruitment and retention tool", considered a near necessity at some firms now, with the option offered in 85 per cent of the employers rated as "best places to work".

She said telecommuting often improves productivity, but that "it may uncover other weaknesses" in an organisation.

The Yahoo decision drew criticism from others, including the Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, who said in a tweet: "Perplexed by Yahoo stopping remote working. Give people the freedom of where to work & they will excel".

Kelly Ann Collins, a Washington marketing consultant, who blogs on work and family issues, called the Yahoo move confusing.

"High-tech companies like Yahoo that are completely digital have the ability to make the lives of their employees so much better," Ms Collins wrote.

"Telecommuting is not only efficient, it is better for team morale and employee retention. It makes for happier employees that [actually like to] produce top-notch work."

But some analysts say Yahoo's move could be positive, even if it drives away those seeking a more flexible environment.

"Yahoo is in a creative innovation race and they need to get back to their roots," said John Challenger, the chief executive of the consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"There are great benefits to telecommuting, and there are more companies that need to do more telecommuting, but [Yahoo] is a case where they are seeking to pull themselves out from a position where they have been behind the curve."

Even before the Yahoo news, some data suggested that telecommuting was not the panacea it was cracked up to be.

The labour department report found that telecommuters often ended up working more hours than if they had come into the office.

"The ability of employees to work at home may actually allow employers to raise expectations for work availability during evenings and weekends and foster longer workdays and workweeks," the report said.

Mr Challenger said Yahoo will not be able to turn back the clock completely, and that some employees are likely to do some of their work from home despite the new policy,

"Some people have always worked from home," he said. "And now technology allows them to work on the weekends, at night or on holiday. There is no boundary between work and home any more."

 

* Agence France-Presse