Apodaca: Telecommuting not so black and white

File this one under "Are you kidding me?"

Internet firm Yahoo recently banned its workers from telecommuting, and suddenly we have a nationwide debate blazing over an issue that had previously appeared settled solidly in the corner of increasing flexibility for employees.

Yahoo's decision was particularly startling because it was made by a young, female chief executive who is trying to regain the cutting edge at the Silicon Valley company, yet it defies our 21st-century ideas about what it takes to be competitive in this modern electronic age.

Adding to the controversy is the fact that CEO Marissa Mayer, who was pregnant when she started on the job last year, took this step with her baby ensconced in a custom-made nursery adjacent to her office (built at her own expense, we are told, but so what?)

The Yahoo news came to us by way of a leaked memo written by a human resources director who explained to employees that the company was banning telecommuting because "some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings."

While that may be true, such spontaneous brainstorming sessions are by no means the exclusive byproduct of unscripted water cooler meetings. By reducing worker flexibility, Yahoo risks alienating the very workers it hopes to energize — the working parents and ambitious young employees who consider social media and electronic communications second nature.

Without a doubt, telecommuting isn't always a great idea. Some jobs lend themselves more readily to work-at-home arrangements, and occasionally some employees use such flexibility as an excuse to goof off. The idea that telecommuting can save businesses money — by reducing real estate costs, for example — is sound in theory but hasn't yet been fully established.

Just last week, electronics retailer Best Buy said it was ending its experiment with flexible workplace hours for employees at its headquarters, news that wouldn't have registered more than a blip in the media had it not immediately followed the outcry over Yahoo's new policy.

Nonetheless, Yahoo and Best Buy aside, telecommuting continues to gain in popularity. About 10% of the U.S. workforce now regularly works from home at least part of the time, and nearly two-thirds of employers allow some degree of telecommuting.

According to the Telework Research Network, the number of Americans that considered their homes to be their primary workplaces grew 73% from 2005 to 2011, to 3.15 million, a figure that doesn't even include the self-employed. It estimates that somewhere between 20 million and 30 million American employees work from home at least one day a week.

Experience and research increasingly show the benefits of such arrangements.

A study Stanford University released last month, for instance, centered around an experiment conducted at a 16,000-employee travel agency in China. Over a nine-month period, some workers were randomly assigned to work from home, while others worked exclusively in an office setting.

The home-working employees showed a 13% performance increase compared to their office-only counterparts. They took fewer breaks, had less sick time, and made more calls per minute. The home workers also scored better on job satisfaction and turnover.

Boosters of telecommuting also cite perceived societal benefits, such as reduced transportation costs and greater supportive for working moms. It's unclear how much those goals are being achieved; data show that men are more likely to telecommute than women, and the childless do so in equal proportions to workers with kids. Also, some research suggests that telecommuters end up working more hours overall — great for their employers, but not so much for the workers who are trying to simplify their lives.

Meanwhile, there is an absence of evidence supporting the idea that increased face time necessarily leads to greater productivity and creativity. That's not to suggest that hallway run-ins always involve idle chitchat about the Lakers' playoff chances or how crazy is Carrie, really, on the TV show "Homeland."

But it's safe to say that bursts of inspiration and collaboration can occur any number of ways. As a freelance journalist, I get tons of ideas from discussions with other parents, educators, business people and community leaders. I also devour newspapers, magazines, books, blogs — you name it — to stay current on issues that I believe are of interest to Daily Pilot readers. Some of my best "insights," as Yahoo would call them, happen while I'm wearing fuzzy slippers and fleece.

Not everyone can work in their pajamas. But to limit the means of unleashing our collective brain power strictly to an office setting amounts to a misguided rehashing of yesterday's arguments.

In Yahoo's case, the problem might not have been telecommuting itself, but management of its workforce generally, and the company's ham-fisted reaction hardly speaks well for its chances of reigniting its competitive fire. Indeed, it wouldn't be surprising if Yahoo soon softens its anti-telecommuting stand.

For most others, however, telecommuting is and will continue to be an accepted and ingrained practice. Corporate America isn't exactly known for its embrace of progressive ideas and willingness to change. But it's finally getting comfortable with giving workers more wiggle room when it comes to where and how they get the job done, and that trend won't stop because one company overreacted.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World