Telecommuting from the Manager’s Perspective

Whether or not it’s a smart move for Yahoo, Marissa Mayer certainly ignited a firestorm of debate when she pushed through a company-wide telecommuting ban for the iconic Internet firm. Unsurprisingly, tech and business journalists are almost universally condemning Mayer for the move.

I don’t want to give a full-throated defense of the still unproven CEO’s decision. It certainly does seem heavy-handed on the surface, but the debate has stirred up the dissatisfaction that many managers have with offsite workers, and there are some legitimate criticisms of remote workers. Providing perks like telecommuting is a balance between attracting talent and maintaining communication, which is really about ensuring productivity. Every CEO, manager and entrepreneur has to make that assessment for themselves.

Benefits of Telecommuting are Hard to Measure

People are eager to tout the technology that supposedly should allow people to work from anywhere, avoid distractions that happen in a busy office. It’s no surprise that individual workers report feeling more productive when they work at home, but are they really?

Sure, it seems logical that, in the often noisy, cramped confines of a field of cubicles, you’d feel like you can get a lot more done in your quiet home office. And if you’re truly not just replacing work distractions with home and family ones, I don’t doubt you can get a lot done. How much more is debatable, though.

So-called “distractions” aren’t always a bad thing. There are a lot of little conversations that simply don’t happen when you don’t bump into people in the office, or when you miss impromptu meetings. At many startups, this type of communication happens spontaneously (or it should), and a telecommuting team member is cut out of the loop. It’s also hard to build and maintain a company culture when everyone is fragmented.

Pushing Accountability for Telecommuters

What I’ve found is that whether or not telecommuting “works” as a method of doing business depends somewhat on the job of the person who wants to work from home, and a lot on the person themselves. Underachievers abuse the privilege to fly under the radar (something which Yahoo should really be concerned about given the quality of many of their products, not to mention that the firm can’t really decide what it wants to be). It’s harder to make those people accountable when you hardly ever see them. Out of sight. Out of mind.

A lot of the concern about employees goofing off when they should be working is really just reflecting that a manager isn’t doing their job of ensuring that their employees deliver value. It can be difficult to measure the output of individual employees, and some people misidentify trying to measure performance as micromanaging. Even if Mayer brings her telecommuters home to roost, however, it doesn’t guarantee productivity gains.

Big Talent Demands Flexibility

Given the concerns I just mentioned, it’s still a fact of life that valuable talent working at Yahoo is probably going to notice how green the grass is on the other side of the fence at the many startups and tech giants who would probably be happy to have them. Mayer may just have forced a bunch of developers, designers and marketing gurus to update their LinkedIn profiles.

With Google and Facebook constantly poaching one another’s employees, I’ll bet headhunters are licking their lips when they see a big Internet company making such an unpopular move. The fact is, talented people are in high demand, and telecommuting is a way to reward them while simultaneously helping to keep them plugged in for more hours of the day. If these and other changes the CEO has initiate are as superficial as they seem on the outside, you could see high-profile people leave out of frustration over management as much as the annoyance of lost perks.

Will our increasingly mobile existence force us to adapt solutions for telecommuting’s weak points so that we can truly realize the imagined benefits, reduce overhead costs and integrate team members no matter where they are? And if we’ve gone too far over to the edge of making our workplaces mobile, can moves like Yahoo’s bring us back from the brink? I hope so. But we’re a long way from it right now.