Telecommuting – working at home or some other location outside the traditional office – was to be the wave of the future in workplaces, and it may still be.
Made possible by technology such as video conferencing and instant messaging, telecommuting had obvious advantages.
According to proponents, employees reported spending more time working and less time commuting. If they were looking after young children or aging parents, they were free of the worry of receiving a sudden distress call at the office. And some could work whatever hours they liked, the ultimate in flex time.
Employers saved on office space and workplace amenities. In some cases, productivity rose measurably. Telecommuting was quick to catch on, a function of a white-collar, knowledge-based economy whose workers weren’t required to show up at a factory or a construction site.
A Bureau of Labor Statistics study last year said that 24 percent of employees reported working from home at least one day a week. A study by the Families and Work Institute, a think tank and advocate of telecommuting, said that last year 63 percent or employers allow at least some to work from home occasionally, up from 34 percent in 2005; only 6 percent allowed all or most to work from home occasionally. According to The New York Times, Aetna saved $78 million in real estate costs last year when 47 percent of its workers began telecommuting, up from 9 percent in 2005.
But, now, one big high-tech company, Yahoo, is rethinking the advantages of telecommuting, and other companies seem prepared to do likewise. New CEO Marissa Mayer believes that what the company gained in productivity, it lost in innovation. She is seeking to rekindle the freewheeling spirit of creativity that made Yahoo an Internet pioneer. On Friday, disgruntled Yahoo workers leaked the company’s memo ending the work-at-home policy and telling everyone they were expected to report to their offices.
The memo from Yahoo’s director of human resources, Jackie Reses, explained: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”
The reaction from the workers was summed up in a USA Today headline: “Telecommuters to Yahoo: Boo.”
The reaction may be quite different if Mayer turns around the struggling company.
In some ways, she is going back to the future. The entrepreneurial startups of Silicon Valley offered free snacks, video and other games, gyms and lounges, the idea being to make the workplace so attractive the employees wouldn’t want to leave. Indeed, one might say, much like home.