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Yahoo Bans Working From Home: “Progress” or a Big Step Backwards?

New policy banning working from home at Yahoo brings up issues with working mothers and employees with disabilities.

Marissa Mayer made headlines when she became the CEO of Yahoo last July. She’s one of the few women to become the top executive of a Fortune 500 company and many wondered how she might balance work and family: Mayer was expecting her first child when she became CEO and now has a young son.

Mayer has been in the spotlight again about work and family issues after a memo sent to staff last week announced, in chipper but very firm terms, that with a view to needing “to be one Yahoo,” any existing work-from-home arrangements will be rendered null and void from June and after. As the message from Yahoo’s head of Human Resources, Jackie Rees, said (via All Things D):

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. 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. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices.

The reaction has, not unsurprisingly, been something less than enthusiastic. All Things D‘s Kara Swisher writes that workers who had such arrangements have been “infuriated” by the “tone and tactics” of the memo: “Even if that was what was previously agreed to with managers and HR, or was a part of the package to take a position, tough … It’s outrageous and a morale killer,” one Yahoo employee told Swisher. Others noted that the new policy has not only annulled any and all work-from-home arrangements, but implied that employees are not to do so even when there are extenuating circumstances.

Working mothers in particular have been none too happy as flexible working hours have been key to them juggling careers and families. Individuals with disabilities have also benefited from telecommuting. An employee with Asperger’s Syndrome, for example, might struggle with social interactions and be far less productive when at an actual office.

According to CNET’s Edward Moyer, employees have had some forebodings that such a change was possible. Since Mayer became Yahoo CEO, food in the URLs Cafe at its Sunnyvale headquarters has been free, just as it is at her former employer, Google. The very buildings and work areas for individual workers have been changed to make them more “collaborative and cool.”

Mayer was hired to turn the once-dominant, long-slumping tech company around. She has long had a reputation as a workaholic and has not at all endeared herself to working mothers, as Jessica Guynn writes in the LA Times. Mayer took only two weeks of maternity leave and built, at her own expense, a nursery next to her office “to be closer to her infant son and work even longer hours.” While still insisting that it does not discuss “internal matters,” Yahoo has issued a statement that the work-from-home ban is not a “broad industry view on working from home” but is “about what is right for Yahoo right now.”

Some business types (Donald Trump) have praised Mayer. Others, including Peter Cohan on Forbes, say that Mayer’s new policy is an “epic fail” that will increase employee stress, lower productivity and result in more traffic and air pollution. Certainly, it is a sign of why the U.S. trails the rest of the industrialized world in flexible work arrangements.

It is more than ironic that Yahoo, like other Silicon Valley companies that have given us the technology to telecommute, has pulled the plug on working from home. As Guynn notes, while Google and Facebook have “informal policies allowing telecommuting” they still “champion the concept of closeness” and have sought to pack their headquarters with amenities (including dry-cleaning services and nap rooms) so that workers have no reason not to be there.

The result (another irony) is that, as Rebecca Solnit writes in the London Review of Books, tech employees who (physically) commute to their jobs via the Google Bus and other company vehicles are starting to resemble none other than coal miners who were once “deposited at the minehead.” Many tech employees have a work schedule (of 60 or 70 hours a week) that indeed “would make a pit owner feel at home.”

Who needs to work from home when your workplace has all the amenities of home — except it’s work?