The Work-at-Home Controversy May Never Go Away
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By Knowledge Wharton,
March 15, 2013

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced a complete ban on working at home in late February, she sparked an uproar in the media, not to mention in the halls of Yahoo itself.

The ban goes into effect in June and impacts everyone, including employees who had previous agreements with the company allowing flexible work arrangements. One irked employee sent an anonymous e-mail to the technology blog AllThingsD saying the new policy is "outrageous and a morale killer."

Wharton faculty members who specialize in issues pertaining to employee productivity and work/life balance were similarly surprised by Mayer's all-encompassing policy change.

"Our experience in this field is that one-size-fits-all policies just don't work," notes Stewart Friedman, Wharton practice professor of management and director of the school's Work/Life Integration Project. "You want to have as many tools as possible available to you as an executive to be able to tailor the work to the demands of the task. The fewer tools you have available, the harder it is to solve the problem."

So what is Mayer trying to accomplish by requiring all employees to show up at the office each day? A spokeswoman for Yahoo declined in an e-mail to comment for this article, saying only, "this isn't about an industry view on working from home. This is about what's right for Yahoo right now."

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According to the original memo sent by the company's human resources department to employees (and later leaked to the media), the idea of the new policy is to improve communication and collaboration. "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," the memo said.

Yahoo's annual revenues have fallen more than 20 percent in the last two years to $5 billion, and in 2012 the company's operating profit plummeted 30 percent to $566.4 million. Mayer, a veteran of Google, has been viewed as a savior by Yahoo investors, who have pushed the company's stock up 45 percent to $22.70 a share since she took over last July.

Friedman says there's little disagreement in the work/life field about the value of face-to-face communication,  especially at struggling companies. "When a company is bleeding profusely, it requires a great deal of interpersonal communication to develop effective responses to critical challenges," Friedman states. "The need to be able to communicate in rich media, i.e. face-to-face, is much more important there than it would be, say, for a call center worker in China, where you can measure performance in very concrete, demonstrable ways."

Mayer's work-at-home decision is consistent with the management style she has perfected throughout her career, according to University of Virginia Darden School of Business professor Melissa Thomas-Hunt, who published a case study about Mayer's rise through the ranks at Google. "What we concluded was that she was very hands-on, and she liked to mentor those around her," Thomas-Hunt notes. "She would bake birthday cakes and would celebrate her colleagues. Relationships were really important. So I can see how she would feel that being able to see and interact with individuals would be important."

That said, Thomas-Hunt points out that proximity doesn't necessarily lead to better collaboration because the rise of e-mail and other technology tools has lessened the need for face-to-face encounters. "The reality is that we're often in the same office space, and yet we're sending e-mails to one another," Thomas-Hunt says. "Any time you have individuals trying to work together, there is potential for a communication breakdown."

All in all, research on the value of everyone being in the office has produced mixed results, suggesting that the answer to the conundrum of how to improve productivity may need to be decided in a nuanced way that takes into account localized challenges and the needs of individuals. "The important considerations here are business considerations. You have to look at the context in which various work arrangements are effective," Friedman notes.
Water Cooler Communications

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As Mayer's memo suggests, being in the office does enhance the so-called water-cooler effect, those chance meetings and unexpected conversations that can generate new ideas. "Serendipity happens at the water cooler," says Wharton operations and information management professor Lynn Wu, who studies the impact of both personal interactions and online social networks on employee productivity.

In one of Wu's studies, a group of workers at a technology company wore electronic badges that kept track of their face-to-face interactions for a month. Wu and the co-authors of the paper (which is under review by an academic journal) found that such meetings were associated with higher overall productivity. They also discovered that when employees interacted with key people on their teams, it sped up the work itself. "When you're trying to transfer really complex information, face-to-face communication is a must," Wu notes.

The benefits of in-person communication aside, it may not be necessary for all employees to be physically together all the time. Wu says her research suggests that having everyone in the same physical space is most valuable when there are new projects being launched or a defined set of problems a company is trying to solve. "It's important when you are in the information-seeking stage or the exploration stage," Wu states. "But there comes a point when you know what you need to do, and you just have to get it done. At that point, it's OK to stay at home."