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Mayer’s telecommuting ban may harm Yahoo

A recent decision by Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer ’97 M.S. ’99 to implement a ban on telecommuting—precluding employees from working from home—may have detrimental effects on both worker productivity and morale, according to faculty experts.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” Mayer wrote in a memo to employees. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when [employees] work from home.”

Just three days prior to the memo’s distribution, Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics, published a study called “Does Working From Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment.” The study found that employees who worked from home enjoyed a 13 percent increase in productivity compared to their office-bound peers, and has since been extensively cited in articles contesting Mayer’s approach.

“It’s very far out there to say that no one [at all] can work at home,” Bloom said. “I can see two reasons [for the extreme action]. One [is] to ‘reset’ everything and reconnect people to the office. The second is that it’s a cheap way to downsize—to make people quit.”

Bloom speculated that Yahoo! might briefly increase productivity by getting rid of the small percentage of employees who are inefficient in telecommuting, with the blanket ban likely to be relaxed later on.

“I’d bet money that one year from now at least the high-performing employees will be allowed to work one or two days a week from home,” Bloom said. “But right now, they’re going from one extreme to the other. It’s like going from a one-wheeled bicycle to a three-wheeled one—neither one is very productive.”

While acknowledging that his study’s subjects—call center employees—may not be wholly comparable to Yahoo! workers, Bloom asserted that the benefits of telecommuting, such as exposure to fewer distractions, remain constant across industries. He noted, however, that the high levels of motivation found in most high-tech workers might limit the variation in output between home and the office.

“If they wanted to slack off, it would be pretty easy to slack off in the office,” he said. “They wouldn’t have to go home for it.”
Shelley Correll M.A. ’96 Ph.D. ’01, director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and professor of sociology, agreed that a relaxed version of Mayer’s policy might ultimately benefit Yahoo! the most.

“With jobs today, just being there doesn’t mean better productivity,” Correll said. “We all want to meet up some time, but this doesn’t require it being Monday through Friday.”

Correll cited her own employees as an example. The Clayman Institute’s 12 employees have varying schedules—some work part-time, some work from home—but everyone must be in the office on Thursday.

Yahoo!’s ban would not only affect the several hundred customer service employees who work full-time from home, but also high-tech workers who work a few days a week at home, with mothers making up a substantial percentage of the latter category.

“[The ban] would decrease productivity and employee morale…it would cause some employees to quit, especially since women normally don’t have someone else at home to take care of problems for them,” Correll said.

While Mayer came under additional criticism from several commentators because she is a new mother herself, Correll criticized that line of attack, citing research showing that female leaders tend to be more heavily criticized than their male counterparts.

“The ways that people stereotype leaders overlap greatly with stereotypes about men,” Correll said. “So when women act like leaders, assertively or powerfully, that contradicts our expectations of them to be nice and warm, for example.”

“In my opinion [the ban] is a bad business decision, but I don’t think it’s right to expect more of her than someone else,” Correll added. “We should judge her decision just as we would have judged a man making this decision.”

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