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Apodaca: Telecommuting not so black and white

March 09, 2013|By Patrice Apodaca

File this one under "Are you kidding me?"

Internet firm Yahoo recently banned its workers from telecommuting, and suddenly we have a nationwide debate blazing over an issue that had previously appeared settled solidly in the corner of increasing flexibility for employees.

Yahoo's decision was particularly startling because it was made by a young, female chief executive who is trying to regain the cutting edge at the Silicon Valley company, yet it defies our 21st-century ideas about what it takes to be competitive in this modern electronic age.

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Adding to the controversy is the fact that CEO Marissa Mayer, who was pregnant when she started on the job last year, took this step with her baby ensconced in a custom-made nursery adjacent to her office (built at her own expense, we are told, but so what?)

The Yahoo news came to us by way of a leaked memo written by a human resources director who explained to employees that the company was banning telecommuting because "some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings."

While that may be true, such spontaneous brainstorming sessions are by no means the exclusive byproduct of unscripted water cooler meetings. By reducing worker flexibility, Yahoo risks alienating the very workers it hopes to energize — the working parents and ambitious young employees who consider social media and electronic communications second nature.

Without a doubt, telecommuting isn't always a great idea. Some jobs lend themselves more readily to work-at-home arrangements, and occasionally some employees use such flexibility as an excuse to goof off. The idea that telecommuting can save businesses money — by reducing real estate costs, for example — is sound in theory but hasn't yet been fully established.

Just last week, electronics retailer Best Buy said it was ending its experiment with flexible workplace hours for employees at its headquarters, news that wouldn't have registered more than a blip in the media had it not immediately followed the outcry over Yahoo's new policy.

Nonetheless, Yahoo and Best Buy aside, telecommuting continues to gain in popularity. About 10% of the U.S. workforce now regularly works from home at least part of the time, and nearly two-thirds of employers allow some degree of telecommuting.

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