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More Than Two Sides to the Telecommuting ‘Debate’

Working from home isn't the black-and-white issue Yahoo's move makes it seem like


Marissa Mayer has been making headlines since she was hired, and now she is stirring up a hot debate.

Women & DiversitySee, earlier this week, the still relatively new CEO of tech behemoth Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) sent a memo to employees informing them of a simple new policy: no more telecommuting. As she wrote, “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with being physically together.”

The bold move is a noticeable reversal in workplace culture. Over the years, more and more companies — especially in Silicon Valley — have embraced the idea of working from home. Mark Zuckerberg’s popular social media site Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) allows it, while nearly 90% of tech giant Cisco’s (NASDAQ:CSCO) employees telecommute.

But I understand the ideal Marissa Mayer is picturing in her head in disallowing telework: employees collaborating, connecting and thus cruising to productivity and profits. (And I see why Mayer feels the need for a dramatic move, as Yahoo is looking to make a dramatic turnaround.)

Heck, tech darling (well, until lately) and innovative leader Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) doesn’t allow telecommuting — that must mean something … right?

To be blunt, I don’t really think so. But that still doesn’t mean Mayer is wrong.

Why Telecommuting Isn’t So Bad

To start, the ideal that telecommuting fanboys (and Mayer) seem to picture overlooks two things. First off, ideals simply do not equal reality. Thinking about the issue from a purely business perspective overlooks the fact that employees don’t solely care about or prioritize work. They have families. They have hobbies. They have responsibilities. And in lots of cases, commuting to work impedes those other things. Sure, the business shouldn’t care (ideally) — or should find people that put work first (ideally).

But realistically, that’s just not the way it goes.

The other big concept that’s overlooked in this “debate” is that telecommuting has advanced. The stereotype of some stay-at-home mom sending out emails while bouncing a kid on her knee is long gone. Instead, technology — from webcams to chatting online with co-workers — often allows the same kind of cooperation to happen over long distances.

Here at InvestorPlace, for example, some of the best brainstorming sessions often happen by simply sending out an email to a few co-workers, or IMing back and forth about a story idea. And it often happens digitally even though we’re all physically in the same room. For better or worse, we’re living more of our lives online — in our personal spheres and in the business world.

And Cisco — “the worldwide leader in networking that transforms how people connect, communicate and collaborate” — seems to be doing all right creating and using such technology, along with with semiconductor maker Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and companies in other sectors, like healthcare giant Aetna (NYSE:AET)

Plus, I understand the other so-called pros of telecommuting: less office space to pay for; a wider pool of potential employees, not constrained by geography; plus an easier and more flexible work-life balance for said employees. Then again, in the case of Mayer, some are speculating that this move isn’t really about work culture at all, but is instead a sneaky way to get rid of some personnel.

If she’s looking for a red herring to distract us from a move that could cut Yahoo’s workforce, she couldn’t do much better than this.

Why That Doesn’t Really Matter

All that aside, the biggest issue I have with the discussion sparked by Yahoo’s decision is that clear-cut for and against camps have resulted, even though it actually isn’t a black-and-white issue at all. We’ve created a false dilemma between collaboration and flexibility — and are assuming an unproven correlation between either work style and success.

Heck, plenty of companies require in-the-office “core days” Tuesday through Thursday, for example, but allow remote contributions on Monday and Friday. Who says it has to be one or the other?

In the end, the reality is pretty simple: The issue isn’t simple. Assuming that one method — telecommuting or coming to an office — is better for business than the other, that such a decision could make or break a company, or that all companies in an industry must all trend in one direction seems to be putting too much weight on the culture.

Really, how a company goes about implementing a telecommuting policy seems more important than banning or allowing it. If a company is going to allow employees to telework, it shouldn’t do so halfway. It must be prepared to invest in the technology, implement rules and make the most of the strategy. And generally speaking, it seems like it would make sense to look at things on an individual basis. While it’s nice to have company rules and norms, it’s a bit simplistic to assume that one strategy will maximize productivity and happiness for all contributors.

All in all, I don’t necessarily have a problem with Mayer’s move. I do, though, have a problem with the polarizing debate it has started. Telecommuting has a time, place and method — but it’s far from a simple “yes” or “no” option for any company. Heck, I could have easily written this very article while sitting at home in my pajamas and slippers … and nothing would have been lost.

As of this writing, Alyssa Oursler did not own a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

Article printed from InvestorPlace Media,

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