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Yahoo ignites controversy with edict to end work at home

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

NEW YORK — Yahoo's leaked edict under CEO Marissa Mayer that calls remote workers back to the office lit the Twitterverse on fire, angering advocates of telecommuting and other programs intended to balance work and home life.

A new study from the nonprofit Families and Work Institute shows a tide moving the other way, with more workers now telecommuting — and men significantly more likely than women to be granted the freedom to work at least partially at home.

Left mostly unanswered is the question Mayer appears to be dealing with: Is that a good thing? Or has the rise in telecommuting led to a drop in productivity or creativity?

Chances are one telework supporter said, the tech giant just wasn't doing it right.

“If you don't know where your people are and what they're doing, then you haven't implemented properly, so she's got her hands full,” said Kate Lister in San Diego, co-founder of Global Workplace Analytics, which collects data on the subject for its Telework Research Network.

Slogging through decades of research on the value of telecommuting is complicated. Small studies have been done by employer membership organizations, companies looking at their own ranks, consulting firms and government agencies, along with academics. Some use small samples; others rely on a wild array of statistics from the Census Bureau, the Small Business Administration or the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The verdicts are mixed and the research often so focused on a workforce or issue related to flex options that it's difficult to make conclusions.

The new Families and Work Institute study, on the other hand, deals solely with employers in the United States, delving into a broad range of family-friendly programs, policies and benefits. The institute found that 63 percent of employers surveyed allow at least some employees to work partially at home on an occasional basis. That's up from 34 percent in a comparable study done for the institute in 2005.

More of the workers were higher-wage earners. Overall, the number of employees who work entirely from home was 3 percent, compared with 64 percent who sometimes do, said Ellen Galinsky, the institute's president and co-founder.

Men were significantly more likely than women to work partially at home — 67 percent compared with 59 percent of women, likely a reflection of more men in jobs where the option is possible. Men also were more likely to work mainly from home.

Neither Lister nor Galinsky has the inside scoop on what's happening at Yahoo, but Galinsky was steadfast about one thing.

“To take away all flexibility for everyone all the time is an overreaction,” she said. “If you know that people will be more innovative and collaborative by being together, that is a positive. But sometimes people need time alone.

“Why do the best ideas occur in the shower or when we're walking the dog?”

Galinsky and others who study work-life balance don't anticipate a backlash among other employers because of Yahoo. And the company followed up an internal memo leaked to the tech blog All things D with a curt statement indicating the prohibition might not be forever.

Meantime, Lister said about 2.5 percent of the U.S. civilian population, or about 3 million people, work at home at least half the time, according to census data. The rate of growth was slowed by the recession, with some researchers suggesting it's flat at the moment.

Why isn't the number even higher?

“The biggest reason is that managers don't trust their employees,” Lister said. “They're still managing the 21st-century workforce with 20th-century styles of commands and controls, back to the days of sweatshops and typing pools. They like to be able to see the backs of their heads.”

The perceived benefits for workers are clear. While 37 percent of the companies in Galinsky's report cite retention of employees as the main reason for developing workplace flexibility and other programs, Lister said 90 percent of teleworkers “feel being able to work flexibly improves their quality of life.”

But what about for employers?

The leaked Yahoo memo, written by Jackie Reses, the company's human resources director, read in part:

“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meeting. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

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