One Month Later: The Media’s Response to Yahoo’s Ban on Telework Completely Missed the Point

Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to examine the media’s response to Yahoo’s ban on telework. Much analysis, by “journalists” and experts alike, missed the point entirely. I explain where so many went wrong.

Who'da thought she'd be the one setting back the cause of working parents?
Most analysis of yahoo’s ban on telework missed the point. The ban punishes the 98% of Yahoo employees who don’t fully work from home

I promise this is the last I’ll write about this issue unless there’s some new development

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban working from home for all employees was rightfully a hotly debated topic. Considering the steady rise of telework over the past decade, the increased attention to work-family issues, and Mayer’s high visibility as the first female CEO of her generation (who was hired while pregnant and recently build a posh nursery for her baby in her CEO suite), you had all the ingredients for a big story.

It is not surprising that many people had very strong feelings about this ban on telework, both pro (“working from home kills creativity”) and con (“betrayal of the sisterhood!”). I have become inured to “journalists” and advocates being unable to write accurate articles. When there’s a hot button issue, we very often get shouting, cherry-picked facts, provocative headlines and overstated conclusions. These are great for page views, but not for an informed readership.

Now that we’re a few weeks out, the time seems right to examine the media reaction to Yahoo’s ban on telework. (hint: almost everyone missed the point entirely)

Here’s What Everyone Missed

Based on the popular press and even expert commentary like those of esteemed creativity expert Dr. R. Keith Sawyer, you’d think a majority of Yahoo! employees worked from home full time. The fact is, however, that fewer than 2% do, or rather, did (about 200 out of about 11,750).

Indeed, if a majority of Yahoo! employees worked from home and hardly ever interacted, Yahoo would be completely correct in stopping this practice- teams require some personal interaction to be creative and productive.

The Yahoo! debate was framed around employees who worked from home most or all of the time. The merits of full-time work from home are debatable, with real pros and cons depending on the work, the employee and the situation. But here’s the catch:

Yahoo’s ban on telework doesn’t just affect those 200 employees who are “killing the creativity” at Yahoo! (as if Yahoo! has done anything creative in the 12 years since it got its lunch eaten by Google, Mircosoft, Amazon, etc.)- it negatively affects the other 11,550 as well.

Yahoo! didn’t just ban full-time work from home, they also banned part-time and informal work from home arrangements– which are standard operating procedure at most enlightened employers (84 of the Fortune 100 “best companies to work for”, including SC Johnson, Qualcomm, Booz Allen, Fidelity, Cisco and Goldman Sachs allow extensive use of part-time telecommuting).

Now, thanks to this short-sighted and overly blunt ban, none of Yahoo’s employees are able to work as they could at competitors. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater (or whatever cliché you prefer).

Here’s what management research on part-time telework shows

The most definitive study on part-time telework, a meta-analysis (a technique that combines the results of dozens of smaller studies to reach more definitive conclusions) by experts Drs. Gajendran and Harrison from Penn State University, found that part-time telework results in:

  • Higher employee job satisfaction and organizational commitment
  • Slightly higher levels of employee performance (All the accumulated evidence shows that, for appropriate jobs, partial telecommuting at worst is performance-neutral, and many included studies demonstrate moderate performance gains)
  • Lowered employee turnover intentions, employee stress and work-family conflict
  • No evidence on harming workplace relationships for those who telecommute fewer than 2.5 days a week. (these are the relationships Dr. Sawyer and others correctly stated are imperative for creativity)

Additionally, other management researchers have found:

  • Telework can result in major cost savings- in terms of lowered employee turnover and absenteeism, lower office rent and utility bills, better space utilization, and the ability for employees to work during emergencies (e.g., Hurricane Sandy).
  • Telework helps attract and retain better employees, especially those of Generations X and Y

So, what will result in more creativity at Yahoo?

  • Making 200 work-at-home employees come to their cubicles, or
  • Helping achieve a more talented, more stable, happier, less stressed, and more committed workforce

The answer is clear. Yahoo! made a bad call.

The media reaction was split pro and con, but mostly argued about the side-dish (full-time work from home)- not the entrée (informal and part-time arrangements).

But it sure was fun to shout and debate- and it resulted in lots of provocative headlines and a flurry of page views.

As I was quoted on NPR about the whole Yahoo! situation:

I’m encouraged by how much media attention this has gotten, and that there’s been, in many quarters, a kind of questioning of this decision, showing that maybe the time is right for full public debate on the value of workplace flexibility.”

Public debate, of course, is sometimes messy, but I would hope future debates focus on the main issues rather than the sideshows- and rely on facts and research, rather than “gut” opinions.

What’s your final word on Yahoo’s ban, and the subseuent media reaction? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

If you’d like more information on this topic, I would recommend the rigorous work of the Work-Family Research Network, the Families and Work Institute, and the Center for Work and Family at Boston College, as well as this great article, which contends that Yahoo’s ban was more a public act of desperation than an attempt to rein in the workforce.

An earlier vesion of this article appeared in the Good Men Project online men’s magazine.

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9 thoughts on “One Month Later: The Media’s Response to Yahoo’s Ban on Telework Completely Missed the Point

  1. I tend to agree with everything you said here. I’m disappointed, as I was looking to spar a bit this morning.

    My thoughts on the matter basically revolve around the fact that this was a blanket statement. It was an over-broad policy decision limiting people with the most knowledge about any specific situation. If an employee/department cold benefit from telework, then the department supervisor should have that tool in her arsenal. If you can’t trust that manager’s judgement, then you need a new manager (of course, maybe the problem is you).

    I never saw this as a femenist or generationalist issue. I guess the former is not particularly salient to me and the latter is largely fabricated. I saw this decision through the lens of management first and poor marketing second. Seriously, telework is a major component of Yahoo’s service offering (not directly, but closely related). This situation is like having William Shatner proclaiming that vacations suck.

    • I like to spar, too. if you keep coming back to read this blog, I’m sure you’ll find something to argue about! 😉

      I agree that the “blanket statement” nature of the decision is the crux of the problem. I discussed that in my first post about Yahoo’s ban when it was first announced. But, you put it very well and succinctly here.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Like you, I think this was a short-sighted decision and I find it hard to believe that Marissa Mayer really believes that all work-from-home is bad.

    My completely uninformed guess is that this announcement was made as a way to allow Yahoo HR to begin documenting the low performance of a few employees who have taken work-from-home too far. Perhaps most Yahoo employees will be able to return to 1-day-a-week work from home (incredibly common out here in Silicon Valley) with the permission of their supervisors, once the dismissals of the low performers are complete.

    On the other hand, perhaps she got tired of being told that brainstorming meetings can’t be held with all hands present on Mondays or Fridays (because those are the days that people most often work from home). It’s true that people can always dial in or join a Google hangout. But certainly there are some circumstances when a meeting with all participants in the same room is preferable?

    • Hi Sandy-

      Thanks for reading, and for the comment.

      You may be right. On its face, the decision doesn’t make sense. Your explanation makes much more sense.

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