Yahoo Is Alone in Thinking Its Policy Change Is Just About Yahoo

NEWS ANALYSIS: Yahoo, breaking protocol, commented on its remote-working policy change, saying it's just about Yahoo—but is that possible?

Yahoo released a brief response after a change to its remote-working policy, announced to employees in a confidential Feb. 22 email that was leaked to All Things D, started a nationwide debate.

Beginning in June, Yahoo executives want all employees who work from home to report to the office instead.

"This isn't a broad industry view on working from home—this is about what is right for Yahoo right now," a Yahoo spokesperson said in a well-circulated Feb. 26 statement, adding, "We don't discuss internal matters."

That Yahoo's CEO made a decision thought to be best for the struggling company, in the midst of (if all goes well) a turnaround, hasn't stopped analysts and talking heads and working and non-working people everywhere from debating whether the decision will hurt working people, progressive ideas about work-life balancing, and worker efficiency and productivity.

Some people may even be discussing whether the decision was a good one for Yahoo.

Adding some emotional charge to the debates is the fact that Yahoo's CEO—its fifth in four years—is a woman, Marissa Mayer, whose own work ethic was put under the national magnifying glass late last year when, after giving birth to a son, she returned to work after only a two-week maternity leave.

"Study after study shows that people work better, smarter and faster when they have the freedom and flexibility to do so in the ways that work best for them; and when they have time to breathe in between tasks and activities—especially when those tasks require creativity," Melanie Turek, vice president of research at Frost & Sullivan, wrote in a Feb. 24 blog post.

Not everyone likes working from home, but those who do "will almost always tell you they are more productive, higher-performing, much happier and remarkably loyal as a result," Turek added, voicing a popular argument among rational people who disagree with the Yahoo policy change.

But those arguments are in support of the idea of working from home—which in theory Mayer may also support, as much research backs it. But what Yahoo said in its Feb. 26 statement is that its policy change isn't about theories or generalizations but about Yahoo, and right now.

The Yahoo edict also didn't doubt that people are more productive or more loyal when they have the option of a flexible work arrangement. But what Yahoo needs right now isn't specifically greater productivity but more innovation—the great "decisions and insights [that] come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings," as Yahoo HR head Jackie Reses said in her companywide email.

"From what I've been reading, studies of different companies and Mayer's own experience at Google apparently indicate that people who telecommute are productive but not innovative, and struggling Yahoo needs innovation right now," Brian Lehrer, host of a public radio talk show on WNYC, said in a conversation Feb. 27 with Lisa Belkin, who writes about the work-life-family balance for the Huffington Post.

"Do you think that's wrong?" Lehrer asked Belkin, who earlier in the conversation said that Mayer, with her decision, had moved the evolving working world "backward."

Belkin answered that studies show that people are more productive from home but, yes, that they're also less innovative.

"But is the answer to that to simply say no, you cannot, ever? ... It's got to be more creative [and more nuanced] than just 'no'!" said Belkin.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst with The Enderle Group, also objected to the blunt-instrument approach taken by Yahoo. The approach "takes discretionary power from the managers and forces them to treat all employees, with respect to this benefit, as if they had abused it," Enderle told eWEEK.

Is it possible for there to be intelligent debate about whether what Yahoo is doing is right for Yahoo? (Does anyone know better than the CEO?) And, are those non-Yahoo-employees who have taken the Yahoo policy change personally right to do so? Is it possible for Yahoo to operate in a bubble that has no effect on its industry or the greater world around it?

We welcome your thoughts.