Is Telecommuting Dead? Don't Count on It, Experts Say

Isolde Raftery, Today
Yahoo Scraps Telecommuting
Yahoo Scraps Telecommuting

When Yahoo relayed to its employees on Friday that they could no longer work remotely, one of the reasons given was that "speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."

It may seem logical – the internal Yahoo memo leaked to The Wall Street Journal's said that some of the "best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions" – but workplace experts say that may not be true.

"Telecommuting is associated with significantly higher levels of job satisfaction, lower turnover intentions, reduced role stress, and higher supervisor-ratings of job performance," said Washington State University psychology professor Tahira Probst via email.

Probst, who researches workplace issues, added that working from home doesn't hurt worker-boss relations. "The data actually suggest telecommuting is associated with a more positive relationship with one's supervisor."

Telecommuting has been a growing trend over the past few years. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 13.4 million people worked from home at least part-time during a typical week in 2010, and the number of telecommuters in computer, science and engineering fields increased by 69 percent between 2000 and 2010.

The federal government has pushed for its employees to be ready to work remotely, should disaster strike. Last fall, thousands of workers were forced to work remotely after Superstorm Sandy knocked out power to much of lower Manhattan.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo
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Natural disaster aside, when it comes to day-to-day work, Mayer may not be alone in wanting her employees to put in more face time. Google Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette didn't seem keen on telecommuters on a recent trip to Australia. When asked how many Google employees work remotely, Pichette replied, according to Sydney Morning Herald: "As few as possible."

After the Yahoo memo about telecommuting was leaked Friday, critics were swift to call the move anti-woman and anti-family. But the Census reported that more men (51.3 percent) worked from home. Of telecommuters, 64.5 percent reported that they did not have children younger than 18 present in the home.

Carol Roth, a brand consultant for the virtual office space company Regus, argued that workplace flexibility allows employers to retain the best talent.

"I was disappointed to hear about this mandate from Yahoo because they're a tech company and it's made us more flexible and allowed us to work from anywhere," Roth said. "To say that the only way to be connected is if you're side by side with somebody is completely backward and at odds with their own mission."

Susan Cain, author of "Quiet," a book about introverts in the workplace, said she thought Yahoo's decision could hinder creativity.

"The kind of person who is in Silicon Valley is a person who is at the top of their game as an engineer and has a creative mind," Cain said. "Also it's a type of person who wants to control their own destiny much more than working for a corporation. They want to dictate their own working terms. They tend to be pretty committed to what they're doing."

In an online (nonscientific) survey readers also questioned the policy.

My quality of work is much better by telecommuting than by actually working in the office. I'm an introvert and I get stressed out by being around people. When I'm at home working, I can get so much work done because I'm not distracted and stressed out by all those around me.

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Wrote another:

Some managers think that the only way work gets done is to perform bed checks to make sure everyone is at their desk at a certain time and think work only occurs when they are breathing down their necks. Other bad managers can't express what they want done unless they are waving their arms in front of the worker and pointing vaguely at what they want done.

But I've also seen workers that can't hold their attention to the screen when they could be puttering in the garden or in the garage.

Others were more sympathetic.

An employer has a right to ask people to actually COME to work, I think. On the other hand, EVERY employer, even if they don't allow daily telecommuting, should be increasing their family-friendly policies to allow for plentiful personal/sick/vacation time and some flexibility with scheduling when needed. The whole country could benefit from that!

Probst said Yahoo's decision could result in more stress, more work-family conflict and "greater intentions to quit working for Yahoo."

"I don't think that is what Yahoo is hoping for as a result of their decision," she said, "but it may be what they see."