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Kathleen E. Christensen Headshot

Flexibility Works, When Done Right

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Yahoo's recent move announcing a blanket ban on employees working remotely has caused quite a stir in the tech community and around the web. When Lisa Belkin wrote about the subject this weekend, more than 800 people commented and thousands upon thousands have shared her blog post. The fact that people far beyond Yahoo's offices are moved to chime in is not surprising to me--employers and employees alike have developed strong opinions in recent years about the personal benefits and business imperatives of offering flexibility in when, where and how work gets done.

What does surprise me about the Yahoo decision is that a multi-billion-dollar, multinational Internet company would take such a simplistic approach to an immensely important business decision. What is most concerning about the Yahoo decision is not just that the company wants to curb remote working, but that they deem it appropriate to make one blanket decision affecting 14,000 employees, rather than providing managers with the flexibility and tools they need to find the right solution for every employee.

In a letter to Yahoo employees posted on All Things D, the company's HR director wrote, "some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings." This is certainly true, which is why no one has ever argued that every job at every company should be completed remotely all of the time. But when the letter goes on to say that, "speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," the company is unfortunately ignoring decades of research showing the business benefits of workplace flexibility.

What makes remote work arrangements function well (or not) is the same thing that makes a traditional workplace succeed: good management. The recent 2013 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work published by When Work Works, a joint project of the Families and work Institute and the Society for Human Resources Management profiles promising and innovative practices from 246 employers that are creating effective and flexible workplaces to make work "work" better for both the bottom line and for employees. Notably, Silicon Valley and tech companies in general are leading the way in providing diverse solutions that work for all employees. GoDaddy.com, for example, not only offers generous maternity/paternity leave, but pairs it with comfortable on-site lactation rooms for new mothers when they do return to work. Microsoft, with 54,000 employees in the U.S., provides a full array of options through its Flexible Work Arrangement program, including job sharing, compressed workweeks and mobile workspaces. Intel allows many of its full-time employees to move to part-time work on a temporary basis while retaining full access to the company's benefits and professional development programs. The result is less burnout, lower turnover, and, as in all of these cases, higher productivity that boosts the company's bottom line.

With all these case studies of innovative workplace programs that provide business benefits, it is mind-boggling that we are still having the simplistic conversation: 'is remote work good or bad?' It's not a matter of whether working from home is better or worse than working in the office--it's about finding the right fit for each job.

Are there employees at Yahoo whose work is best completed at a physical office on a traditional nine-to-five schedule? I'm sure there are. Is this the best work structure for all 14,000 of their employees? Certainly not. The one thing that is abundantly clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all-solution. Some jobs are suited to the traditional nine-to-five, in-office structure; others are not. The companies that succeed in the 21st century will be those that provide good management and find innovative solutions that work for every employee.