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Yahoo bans working from home: What happened to the future?

/ Feb 26, 2013 9:01AM / Print / ()

Yahoo bans working from home: What happened to the future?

If you're like me, you may have thought that more workplaces are moving towards telework. You may have thought that the future, especially with the changing demographic of the workplace and opportunities enabled by high-speed broadband, would see employers better adapt to the flexibility needs of employees.

But that's not the case for Yahoo employees, who were recently sent an internal memo from their HR department informing those who work remotely that they need to be back in the office as of June. "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," the memo read. "Being at Yahoo isn't just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices."

Nor does Google appear to be encouraging the uptake of working from home. Google CFO Patrick Pichette expressed his opposition to it during a talk in Sydney last week, stating the search giant aims to have "as few as possible" employees working remotely. "There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking, at the computer, 'What do you think of this?'"

So what happened to the future?

Yahoo and Google, two of the companies we thought would play an instrumental part in enabling the very telework culture we anticipated, have gone out of their way to reject telework as a legitimate means to innovation.

I don't completely disagree with the Yahoo statement, nor the comments made by Pichette. It's true that great ideas can occur off-the-cuff, just as you're deliberating on something else or even catching up on what you did over the weekend. There is a place for that. But it doesn't have to occur every day, nor in the same way that it occurred during the industrial era. Nor should it be a blanket rule thrown across all employees: we all have different tasks and responsibilities and some of us would be more productive without the distractions of other employees.

Meanwhile social media, Skype and other technology-enabled communications are spurring just as many great ideas and conversations as occur in person. Indeed, many of us will spend our evenings filtering through information and social media contacts directly relevant to our work: we search for inspiration, tips and tools that can help us work smarter.

Then there's the fact many (granted, not all) of us are simply more productive from home, especially if we can work to our own hours. Last week, Fairfax papers reported on a Melbourne University study that found those who work from home work harder than the rest of us: they start earlier, get more done and often work up to three hours longer a day.

Companies like Google go to great lengths to keep employees in the office: free lunches, games rooms and homely meeting spaces where one can duck off for a nap are just part of what's on offer. It's a shift in office design that defies what some futurists are predicting will occur.

Intel's Steve Brown who told a Dell Future of Work Think Tank late last year that offices will become "temporary anchor points" in the future, rather than places we drag ourselves through peak-hour traffic to get to five mornings a week.

Performance will be based on outcomes, rather than time spent in a cubicle, and employees will move to do more collaboration online – perhaps only physically meeting at the beginning and end of projects.

Such a shift may simply occur through necessity. There's the rise in traffic congestion to consider, as well as office and real estate costs and the need to respond to the increasing demand for flexible work by employees.

The Yahoo announcement – ultimately, the responsibility of CEO Marissa Mayer – was disappointing. It's not that it comes from a woman, but because she's a much-admired leader. We need leaders to demonstrate that telework is OK before we can ever hope to ensure it becomes a mainstream option for those who wish to take advantage of it.

Technology has allowed our work to enter our homes. And yet we still largely work hours – and in structures – that were designed during a time when bringing work home was simply impossible.

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