THE BLOG
02/25/2013 03:38 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2013

Unfortunate Unflexing of U.S. Workplaces

What do you call the process by which an employer who offered flexible work arrangements to employees for years suddenly decides to retrograde flexibility?

Unflexing.

I decided to give it a name because it seems to be a small but growing trend in Corporate America. First Bank of America announced late last year it would be scaling back its flexible work arrangements; and just last week Yahoo! threw its hat in the unflexing ring by sending out a memo to employees saying telecommuting is soon to be a perk of the past.

The memo was included in an All Things D article. Here's an excerpt:

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.

It's a disturbing trend that doesn't seem to make a lot of business sense if employee engagement and productivity is an important goal. We're not saying that all work-at-home arrangements are advantageous for all involved, or that some face-to-face time isn't critical when it comes to performing your job.

"It is true that remote workers can become unplugged from the social and creative network of an organization if they are rarely in the physical office space," said Ken Matos, Senior Director of Employment Research and Practice for Families and Work Institute. "It can be advantageous to require employees to be present for big creative meetings and important tradition- and memory-making social events to reinforce those bonds."

However, he continued,

unilaterally ending all remote work options is extreme, blunt and ultimately substitutes one set of problems for another. If other companies choose to be more flexible and establish more nuanced remote work plans that combine flexibility and creativity Yahoo may be on the loosing end of a talent war with its competitors.

One of the key problems with Yahoo's move, Matos pointed out, is that

when taking away a valued benefit it is important to give employees concrete reasons why the benefit was not working right and why it could not be fixed with more restrained adjustments. The Yahoo! memo does neither.

Yahoo's management is under pressure to produce results for the struggling Internet giant, trying to boost its marketshare and revenues hammered by the tough economic climate in recent years. Many organizations throughout the country face similar issues. Unfortunately, workflex now has a bull's eye on it.

This at a time when more and more employees are craving more workplace flexibility, including men and women who are looking to better handle the challenges of work and personal needs. Often the lack of flexibility has been blamed on the dearth of women leaders in the workplace who aren't in the top seats to push such a workflex agenda. At the same time, the lack of women in leadership has been blamed on inflexible workplaces.

Alas, in the case of Yahoo's decision, the standard reasons for inflexibility are hard to use because the firm's CEO is a woman.

Indeed, Marissa Mayer, made it very clear after she took on the post of Yahoo CEO, that she wasn't interested in workflex for herself.

She disclosed to Yahoo's board before she accepted the job that she was expecting her first child. And she also said, "My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it." Mayer got a lot of heat for her comments from many women's groups and work-life fit advocates.

Clearly not all working women require long maternity leaves, and more power to her for having done exactly what she said she would once her son was born. But there are many employees out there who see a value in this, and other types of flexibility.

But workflex won't work, if there isn't buy in at ever level in an organization, according to Families and Work Institute's research:

Flexibility programs will not succeed if they are not supported both by management and the day-to-day work processes of the organization.

"Ms. Mayer may be living up to her critics' worst fears by assuming that the work style that makes her most productive will promote similar results from her employees," Matos surmised.