Working Hard or Hardly Working? Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!, and the Telecommuting Trend

Mar 07, 2013

Last week, the new CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, gave her employees an ultimatum: come to the office or quit. The statement sent shockwaves through the business world, inciting visceral reactions from media outlets and workers alike, and perhaps rightfully so. It seemed many companies were just beginning to get used to their employees working from home, and now, one of the most powerful figures at one of the most powerful companies was denouncing the idea.

Strangely enough, earlier this month EContent editor Theresa Cramer sent me a press release from Regus, a flexible workspace provider. Regus had done a survey asking workers how they felt about working from home-whether managers are putting enough trust in employees to get their jobs done while working remotely. While most of the findings weren't earth shattering, a few tidbits popped out at me. First, according to the survey, workers don't believe they need to earn their employers trust when it comes to working from home. In fact, the survey found that 81% of respondents believe that the pressure should be on businesses to trust employees more. Additionally, 88% of U.S. respondents believe managers need to be more accepting of flexible work arrangements.

Did you hear that, Marissa Mayer?

Obviously she didn't see this study, and if she did, it probably wouldn't change her mind. Working from home is one of those things that works for some companies and doesn't for others. It completely depends on the job at hand, and who is doing it. But if Mayer had looked at the Regus study, at least it would have given her someone to blame for the telecommuting revolution. According to the survey, it seems younger workers were the ones that had made flexible working "more mainstream" in the first place. I had always wondered how working from home had become so prevalent in recent years. And now I know-the Digital Natives did it.

This doesn't quite make sense to me, though. To be honest, I don't know many people in the Digital Native age group that work from home. I've always been under the impression that older workers, who have children to care for or have been with their company a long time, were making up the majority of telecommuters. Apparently I was wrong.

Furthermore, according to sources like The Center for Workforce Innovation, many companies are under the impression that in order to keep younger workers happy, they have to be more flexible about work hours. Is this really true?

When I first entered the workplace, working from home was a perk, not a given. The fact that many young workers treat telecommuting as something they are owed is frustrating. Most people I know who can work from home, don't - myself included. I'm an editor by trade, a career that lends itself well to working remotely. But even though my profession could very easily allow me to work from the comfort of my bed, I commute 1 hour (through Boston traffic!) every day to an office. I can't work from home, and I know many of my peers ages 25-35 who feel similarly. And when I say I can't work from home, I don't mean I'm not allowed. It's just that I can't get any work done. Why? For the same reasons many studies have sighted as the negatives to telecommuting, all of which I'm sure Mayer has seen.

For instance, the June 2012 Monthly Labor Review by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Department of Labor) found that most of the hours spent telecommuting are overtime hours, and that they don't necessarily replace in-office hours. The University of Texas at Austin found similar statistics. Their study noted that employees who worked remotely added 5-7 hours to their work week, compared to those who worked only at the office.

Maybe Mayer is trying to save her employees some grief. I know that when I worked from home, I felt like a slave to my email, constantly checking who sent me a message even up until bed time. It's a practiced art form-you have to know when to turn it off. But there's another reason many companies don't want their employees working from home, and it's an issue that, in my opinion, affects younger workers much more prominently than older workers. The problem is distraction.

Let's be honest, the internet is a vast playground full of cute puppy videos, memes, and one-click shopping. A article described a survey done by Wakefield Research for the IT consulting company Citrix, noting that the survey found 43% of workers say they've watched TV or a movie while "working" remotely, while 35% have done household chores, and 28% have cooked dinner.

Now this survey didn't break down the respondents by age, so there is no way of knowing if an older worker is more apt to make dinner instead of checking email, but knowing what I do about young workers and their constantly connected lives, it wouldn't surprise me if they were less diligent with their work while at home. Sure, some people, no matter their age, have the self-discipline to do their work from their favorite easy chair without getting distracted. Should these people suffer because of the rest of us can't? Of course not, but it seems like they are.

The workplace dynamic is changing every day. The Regus' survey also noted that managers are more apt (79%) to see an employee arriving early and staying late as "hardworking" while the individual employee does not (54%). Companies don't need to offer working from home as an option to younger workers, or any workers really, to do well. The old way of looking at the workplace obviously doesn't meld with the new one, but that certainly doesn't mean one is better than the other. Some things never change though. Just show employees respect and it won't matter where they are working-they'll get the job done.