The Fate of Flexible Work Options

She says: A Commentary

Is this the image of a workplace with ideas sparking or of lots of chit chat and wasted time?
Is this the image of a workplace with ideas sparking or of lots of chit chat and wasted time?

Did you hear that? It was the sound of time wildly spinning backward. Recently, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo (and new mother) announced she was doing away with telecommuting at her company.  I was immediately angry and worried for everyone (women and men) at Yahoo and other companies who have worked so hard for their flexible work options.

Reportedly Mayer made this mandate after finding out that some of her telecommuting employees were, in essence, hiding out and not being productive. If that’s the case, shame on those individual telecommuters for giving the productive ones a bad name and ruining a perfectly good situation for them all. But mostly, I am angry at Mayer and at those few bad seeds for the influence Mayer’s decision may have on other companies that had been, up till now, very progressive, gaining a positive image in the marketplace, increasing employee loyalty and attracting prospective employees in droves.

Two important points have to be made:
1. Flexible work options are a privilege and not a right. They should only be given to the employees who can prove that their productivity and quality of work will not change, will likely increase and will be beneficial to THE COMPANY. While it’s for the good of the employee, it ultimately needs to be about the good of the company.

2. Not everyone is cut out for telecommuting or other flexible work options. Some just can’t concentrate at home with the lure of TV or the pile of laundry that needs to be done. Some people take advantage of the situation and goof off. But then again, consider the amount of time people spend IN THE OFFICE cybershopping, checking Facebook or watching YouTube and gossiping. If people are prone to wasting time while working, they are going to do it at home or at the office.

I started telecommuting 20 years ago when my second child was born. It was such a new concept, I had to send away (by mail) for articles (on paper) and go buy books (at a bookstore) to help me learn about it. There was no quick search on the internet or many others doing it to consult with. It was a new thing that held a lot of promise. Fortunately, I worked for a very progressive organization, headed by a man, who thought it made a lot of sense and, because I’d come up with a stellar proposal, and had proven myself to be a productive and loyal employee, he let me do it. And it worked, fantastically, until I was promoted (yes, while being a telecommuter) and my new boss, a single mother of two, wouldn’t let me telecommute anymore. She said “this new-fangled flexible work option thing is never going to catch on so I want you here where I can see you and talk to you any time I want” (which surprised me, coming from a woman).

There was no way I was going to give up the great and functioning situation I had (and no way I was going to work for a power-hungry

Telecommuting allows employees to work when they are at their most clear-headed and productive - even if that's in the middle of the night.
Telecommuting allows employees to work when they are at their most clear-headed and productive – even if that’s in the middle of the night.

boss).  When a great idea struck, I could act on it, even if it was in the middle of the night. With the flexibility to work when I wanted to (but still primarily between 8am and 5pm), I was able to give my company my productive, creative, clear-brained, energetic best. I no longer wasted time chatting, or being chatted at, by co-workers or my boss. There were no longer constant interruptions. When my children were sick or had a school holiday, I didn’t have to take the day off. I could tend to them and still keep working. My productivity doubled by being able to work from home. How could I give that up and go back to being totally stressed and less productive? I couldn’t, so I quit.

I went on to work for a company that promoted flexible work options, helping companies and employees come up with plans that worked for everyone. Since then, I have managed, almost without exception, to work for open-minded companies that allowed some sort of flexible work option, whether it was telecommuting even once a week or just a flexible schedule. It’s smart business for companies to offer this.

So what does Mayer feel will be gained by having everyone under one roof? Her argument is that great ideas are sparked when people are standing around the water cooler, or are in each other’s offices. Sure, I can see that but you might get one minute’s worth of brilliant idea sparked out of a fifteen minute discussion about what happened during the latest episode of “Mad Men.” Why not let people telecommute part-time and have a weekly “brainstorming day” in the office to keep the juices flowing?

I sure hope that Mayer will take some of the profits from all of the brilliance she thinks will come from having everyone under one roof and will build a daycare center at Yahoo to assist her employees (and herself) with balancing work and family.  And I hope she’ll consider that often, not allowing flexible work options is more about power and less about logic. And for those employees who are “hiding out”? If they truly are not getting the job done, fire them. But consider that maybe they are getting their jobs done and done well but it’s taking a lot less time. What’s the point of having people under one roof all day if 1/3 of that day is a complete waste of time (and office space and electricity, etc.)?

Reward the loyal and productive employees with flexible work options, weed your corporate garden of those who aren’t worthy and get back to business. We’ve come too far to turn back now.

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