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Room with a Productive View

Public reaction to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban telecommuting can largely be summed up by the title of Slate magazine writer Farhad Manjoo’s  article: “Marissa Mayer Has Made a Terrible Mistake.”

Business analysts pointed to research documenting the benefits of working remotely. Parents waxed indignant over her decision to ban telecommuting while building (at her own expense) an onsite nursery for her new baby. While some Mayer defenders claim the controversy was fuelled by sexism, the more likely reason seems to be, as blogger Dana Theus suggests, that “the broader market associates Silicon Valley with innovative employee policies. Observers see the Yahoo move as out of step with what a cutting-edge tech company would do.”

AllThingsD’s Kara Swish reported that, in fact, Mayer’s decision was driven by technology. When Mayer checked VPN logs to see how often workers were logging onto the network, the answer was: not often enough. Even Mayer defender G.A. Marken admits that this is more of a management—and personal ethics—problem than an indictment of remote working.

The reason Mayer herself cited in the now-infamous memo was that “to become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.” The assumption inherent in this reasoning—that communication and collaboration require physical co-location—is contradicted by a recent Trackvia survey of knowledge workers that found 43 percent of respondents felt electronic communication improved workplace relationships.

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Trackvia’s results may reflect the rapid evolution of electronic communication. Research firm comScore reports that the UK online video audience grew 8 percent in the past year, whilst mobile video audience grew 262 percent. Widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets as well as cloud-based services like Skype has made consumers more comfortable with using technology to build and maintain relationships.

An MIT study of 80 software development projects found that virtual teams can actually outperform co-located groups. This finding is validated by another recent study conducted at a Chinese travel agency by Stanford University, which found remote workers outperformed peers in the office. They worked more hours and spent their time working more productively. Retention rates were also higher among remote workers—perhaps because managers are empowered to make hiring decisions from a much larger pool of qualified candidates.

Benefits like these help explain rising rates of remote workers. A CBI study showed the number of employers offering remote working to employees has risen from 13 percent to 59 percent. Companies have also found that virtual workers save money (by reducing physical office size requirements) and boost brand association with “green” policies by reducing carbon footprint.

Companies like Yahoo are bucking an overall trend with the decision to restrict rather than expand workplace flexibility. Increasing employee satisfaction and productivity whilst saving money makes remote working a smart investment for businesses.


Image courtesy of Jessaymn
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