Business

02.28.13

Current, Former Yahoo Employees Question the Ban on Working From Home

Is CEO Marissa Mayer’s announcement that all staffers must work in the office a bid to end slacking at home or a harbinger of layoffs? That’s what current and former Yahooers are asking. Winston Ross reports.

Matthew Hanagan worked for Yahoo back in 2006, out of a satellite office in San Francisco, doing search-engine marketing in the company’s entertainment group. After a round of layoffs, the floor he worked on was “half empty. There wasn’t anyone in the building I was interfacing with besides my boss,” he said.

In other words, schlepping to the office via train 40 minutes each way had become pointless. Hanagan and his boss talked about it, and they agreed he could start working from home a couple days a week.

“There were a lot less distractions,” he said. Hanagan is convinced he got more work done on those days.

That’s why he and other former and current Yahoo employees around the world are puzzled or outright incensed at CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent announcement that the company’s 12,000 staffers will no longer be permitted to work from home.

“It’s removing common sense,” Hanagan said.

He’s not surprised, though. Companies may be starting to backtrack on what had been a growing national movement to allow employees to telecommute in their jammies, he said. Work from home jumped from 73 percent between 2005 and 2011, according to research by Telework Research Network. But managers may be deciding that they’re losing too much productivity. Hanagan’s current company in New York, which he didn’t want to identify, recently implemented an across-the-board work-from-home ban too.

“A blanket decision isn’t received very well,” Hanagan said. For example, “if I’m feeling kind of sick, I don’t want to infect people in the office, but still feel like I can do my job, I don’t want to take a sick day and not do my work. It puts the employees in a bad place.”

Or a freaked-out place. The Daily Beast spoke with a former Yahoo manager who left the company three months ago after running a team of four employees, all of whom work remotely. They started working from home because Yahoo laid off so many others in the office they once occupied that it no longer made sense to lease the space, the former manager said. Now those employees may have to move two hours away to the closest satellite office, to the company’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, or find new work altogether.

“They’re feeling pretty disregarded and pissed,” said the former manager, who asked not to be identified for fear of affecting his former employees’ jobs. “When you’re a valuable worker and something like this comes at you, it’s hard to reconcile.”

Asked about Mayer’s announcement, a Yahoo spokesperson said: “We don’t discuss internal matters. This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home—this is about what is right for Yahoo! right now.”

“They’re feeling pretty disregarded and pissed. When you’re a valuable worker and something like this comes at you, it’s hard to reconcile.”

Telecommuting has its pros and cons, the former manager said. No dressing up to go to work, starting at whatever time makes the most sense, changing the laundry over while taking a phone call. If the job requires frequent communication with co-workers, it’s easy enough to accomplish via instant messenger and email, he said. And even in an office, that’s how people tend to talk to each other anyway.

“We would be in an office sitting there IMing back and forth,” the manager said.

Toward the end, he said, he began wanting to work in an office again—and that’s part of the reason he left Yahoo. But Mayer’s decision has made many current employees unhappy, he said, and the rumor mill is humming.

“Is this a stealthy way to lay people off without incurring the expense of severance packages?” he asked. “Is it just about trying to reel in people who do work in those central locations, a policy saying, ‘You’re able to come into the office, we’re going to force you to’? I also wondered if it’s some sort of cost saving to outsource those jobs.”

Another former Yahoo employee told The Daily Beast that the whole place became increasingly inefficient as she watched it grow from 1,500 employees to 11,000 between 2000 and 2006, the years she worked there in sales. That increase coincided with the growing trend of working from home as advances in technology made it easier, with better Internet connection speeds outside the office and better software for teleconferencing.

“I traveled a lot for my job,” she said. “It was a benefit to be able to work from home for half the day before having to go to the airport.”

But the growth in telecommuting’s popularity combined with the surge in the company’s total employees allowed people to fall through the cracks and slack, she said.

In the early days, “if you worked at home and you were a slacker, perhaps you got weeded out faster,” she said. “With all the changeover, there was a lot of chaos. Someone who can take advantage of the system will take advantage of the system.”

Some former employees have said the announcement means the company has decided the policy is a necessary one, to keep slackers on task.

“It was a great way to get Y! to pay you while you put in minimal work and do your side startup,” a former Yahoo engineer told Business Insider. “There’s a ton of abuse of that at Yahoo.”

That should be a solvable problem, former Yahoo employees told The Daily Beast. Bosses who want to hover over their employees can do that with instant messaging, if they want.

“I always knew if things were being kept up on,” the manager who left recently said. “I had no problem at all trusting that people were on task, and I assumed my boss in Sunnyvale trusted me, too.”

If productivity is suffering, that can be dealt with on an individual level, Hanagan said.

“The mistake is that they’re doing it across the board, rather than from an intelligent perspective,” he said. “Just because Marissa Mayer wants to leave her child rearing to someone else doesn’t mean everyone has that same perspective. Not a lot of compassion.”

Still, the former employee in sales said she can see Mayer’s decision from both sides. Mayer is the struggling company’s fifth CEO in five years, and as the youngest head of a Fortune 500 company in America, it’s important that she make some bold moves. But she could lose as many talented people as she does slackers in a buyer’s market where companies are competing for good people, the ex-employee warned.