The Last Word: Turning Their Backs on Telecommuting

By Rick Bell

Apr. 1, 2013

The business case for telecommuting was established more than two decades ago.

No doubt Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer knows that. I’m guessing that in the days and weeks leading up to her February decision to ban telecommuting at the search engine giant, she considered the 20-year-old-plus arguments that working remotely is a strategic tool, it empowers employees to create flexible solutions, it makes workers happier, the technology is available and that results can be measured.

They are all legitimate arguments with case history that dates back to at least 1991. That’s as far back as our online archives go—back to the days when Workforce was called Personnel Journal. And sure enough, there’s a reference to telecommuting in a story about Marriott’s corporate culture.

You could also argue that telecommuting originated with Yahoo’s Silicon Valley neighbor Hewlett-Packard. In 1967, the pioneering computer-maker allowed its plant in Germany to offer flextime—a truly radical concept at the time. HP then implemented large-scale telecommuting in the mid-1990sas technology advanced.

And from its earliest days after being founded in 1994, Yahoo has employed legions of telecommuters. So Mayer—a Stanford University grad, by the way—is no stranger to the culture of a remote workforce.

Mayer’s decision leaves no doubt that she believes the merits of telecommuting are outweighed by the other side of the argument that collaboration truly happens at the office. The same can be said for Best Buy. The big-box electronics retailer followed Yahoo in March by tossing its heralded strategy of ROWE—Results Oriented Work Environment—and ordered its corporate employees to get back in the office.

The decisions also imply that Yahoo’s commitment to telecommuting and Best Buy’s ROWE—essentially work when you want, where you want but just get the job done—created a bloated, lazy and unproductive remote workforce. Will these office-centric edicts change that? By permanently etching a line not only across Yahoo’s addiction to telecommuting but through a massive sector of the workforce that works out of the office, this is a defining moment of her career.

If these executives have done their homework on overhauling a workforce, they should understand that merely swinging the doors wide open and offering a posh cafeteria and shiny new smartphones won’t make collaboration happen overnight.

I don’t think I am overstating it by saying that such a culture shift is like building a brand-new workforce from scratch—a team of thousands at that. First, construction crews are going to be working 24/7 to facilitate a horde of new employees in an office setting. Then there are the inevitable technology glitches (and they will happen) that will impair the workforce for weeks, if not months, driving stress to dangerous levels.

But before they knock down that first wall, have Yahoo and Best Buy management considered office culture? Who gets seats near the window—employees or managers? Trust me, that’s a big deal.

They also better realize that some employees won’t play nice. Try as you might to establish a friendly, open, warm environment, the bottom line is no good deed goes unpunished. Personalities will clash.

It’s People Management 101, and hopefully the human resources teams are equipping managers with the training to put out every office fire from perfume policiesto flaps over the office candy dish.

Learning personalities, nuancing situations and creating a team atmosphere will take time. And lots of patience. When teamwork clicks, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s like watching the Harlem Globetrotters run circles around the Washington Generals.

Whether intended or not, these declarations to collaborate in person rather than cooperate virtually is turning Yahoo and Best Buy into large-scale laboratories radically overhauling their corporate cultures.

I’m glad I can watch the experiment play out—remotely. Because I don’t think I’d want to be one of the lab rats at Yahoo or Best Buy.

Rick Bell is Workforce's managing editor. Comment below or email Follow Bell on Twitter at @RickBell123.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email

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