Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Yahoo! and Working From Home

I suppose at this point I should say something about the extremely widely-read news that Yahoo! will continue to allow employees to occasionally show up late or stay early in order to attend to home life, while putting an end to regular, ongoing work-from-home arrangements.

Let me first say that an awful lot of the coverage seems to phrased as "Marissa Mayer bans working from home", not "Yahoo! CEO bans working from home", and I have to wonder if this would happen if the CEO were a man. The framing seems to imply that a female CEO should be more sensitive to work/family balance issues, but anyone who is working from home with children in the house either has a full-time nanny, a stay-at-home spouse who's minding the kids, or simply isn't productive.

As to the merits of the idea, there are basically two reasons why you might not want employees to work from home regularly. One is that WFH arrangements make meeting scheduling into an even more giant pain in the ass than it already is. Given that tech companies may have employees who get to work at various times between 8am and 1pm, there are really only a handful of hours each day where meetings can be reliably scheduled. If you a team has one person who stays home on Tuesdays and another who stays home on Thursdays, you've got something like 9 hours out of a 45 hour work week where you can reliably get everyone together. You can argue whether making it hard to schedule meetings is a feature or a bug, but if you accept that it's a bug, then there are only two options: ban WFH, or set core hours & days (i.e. "everyone has to be in the office from 10am-4pm MWF, or similar").

The other is that the company's employees may be genuinely less productive when working from home. Protestations from folks like Farhad Manjoo and David Watkins aside, this is a situation where a large company like Yahoo! could easily gather the relevant data. Just track the rate of emails sent and source code commits on days spent WFH and compare that to the employees' productivity on those days versus a day in the office. Now, it's possible that Yahoo! doesn't have this data and this is all a backhanded way of laying people off, but several sources have leaked that the company does have an unusually high rate of working from home and that the WFHers seem to be less productive.

Last but not least, Mayer is a former executive at Google, a company that famously doesn't track sick time. If you get pneumonia or break your back or whatever, you stay home until you're better (I can't figure out if this time is paid or unpaid). Google also has similarly loose policies around working from home or from other offices, letting people take quasi-vacations by visiting their locations London, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, etc. If a new CEO coming from that environment thinks people aren't getting enough done while working from home, then things are probably really bad.
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