Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's decree that telecommuting will no longer be allowed at the company is a terrible move for an executive who, in her short tenure, has otherwise done a great job turning the company around.
That doesn't mean it's a simple problem. There are costs and benefits to telecommuting, for both companies and employees. Many pundits are taking it as a given that telecommuting is an unalloyed good. But it isn't. Many employees take advantage of telecommuting and do half-assed jobs. This seems to be a particularly big problem at Yahoo -- perhaps more so than at other Silicon Valley companies.
But for Yahoo to issue this decree at this point, in such a clumsy way, was a big mistake.
At this point in Mayer's turnaround efforts for the troubled company, one of her biggest and most immediate problems is the difficulty of attracting and retaining employees. Morale is in the gutter. The best people already don't want to work there. And it so happens that the best people often want to telecommute and aren't any less productive for it -- usually, they're more productive, in fact. One of the reasons Yahoo has been foundering for years is that it hasn't hired the best people, and it hasn't managed any of its people very well, whether they telecommute or not.
The decree, signed by Jackie Reses, the head of human resources, is rather tin-eared. And the policy is draconian. It would appear that Yahoo isn't merely shoring up a rather chaotic system of telecommuting -- it's basically issuing a blanket ban on it, for all employees in all circumstances. Even people who work at home only for a day or two per week will reportedly now be forced into the office every day. "And," Reses wrote, "for the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration." In other words, if the cable guy is coming, you probably should ask your neighbor to let him in or something. But get your ass to work.
Study after study has determined that telecommuting can actually improve productivity. Abrogating arduous commutes and helping employees worry less about their kids or other aspects of their personal lives frees up time and brainspace to allow them to concentrate more on their work, and often (though not always [PDF]) to be happier doing it. But that assumes that the employees are committed to the companies they work for, and that the companies make sure to hire only dependable, responsible people whose productivity is regularly and reliably measured. That hasn't been the case at Yahoo, which for years has been a big, bloated mess staffed largely (though certainly not solely) by oafs, or by people spending much of their time looking for new jobs or working on building their own companies.
The answer to this problem is to reform the HR department and its hiring practices. Part of that no doubt would involve determining that, for some jobs, a presence in the office is absolutely necessary, or at least would, on balance, benefit the company. But mainly, it would involve making sure that only the best people are hired in the first place, and that their productivity is monitored day by day. It would involve ejecting slackers, wherever their desks might be.