The Problem with Yahoo’s Telecommuting Decision

Posted on February 26, 2013.

The recent announcement from Yahoo to force telecommuters back to the office comes on the heels of Bank of America’s announcement in December to limit it's "My Work" flex schedules.  This is a disturbing trend at a time when employees are asking for more and more flexibility and work-life balance.

The real question is what’s the reason behind these decisions?  It was just in January of 2011 that the American Banker reported that several financial service companies, including my former employer, Bank of America, were increasing the levels of their flexible employees because it saved them $5,500 per employee/per year.  Plus a recent study from Brown University showed a 12% increase in productivity from people that work from home. So what gives?

The Yahoo memo states the reason for the move is “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.” I don’t buy it.  As several follow up articles have speculated, the real reason was to force attrition.  That makes more sense to me.  Certainly some of the telecommuters will leave Yahoo.  But here’s the problem with Yahoo’s strategy and communication plan:

1.    They aren’t telling the truth.  If this is the real reason they’re forcing people back in the office, then say so.  The broken trust that a hidden agenda creates will take years to repair.

2.    They aren’t differentiating from mediocre employees and top talent. What is the point of having middle managers if you aren’t going to trust their assessment of top talent?  Who’s to say that all the telecommuters are the worst? In my experience, the really strong talent will leave and the mediocre will drive to the office and be there until you kick them out.

3.    They’re limited to the top talent they can attract.  What if the best product developer lives in Chicago? Now you have zero ability to hire him or her because they need to move and drive to an office.

If in fact the least productive people at Yahoo were the ones working from home, why change the policy? Why not just hold their managers accountable for allowing that level of meritocracy for so long?

It just seems with new technology like Skype and Google Hang Out, Yahoo could create the communication and collaboration they desire. The reality is that Yahoo is bloated and needs to cut, but this was the wrong way to do it. Instead of moving backwards, Yahoo could have instituted a Results oriented Work Environment (ROWE) and been at the forefront of innovation.  With ROWE, Yahoo could have ended up with a reduced but more effective work force.