Yahoo Limits Telecommuting-Is It Legal? Is It Smart?

© 2013 by Cary J. Calderone

It doesn't look scary.  Or, does it?

It doesn’t look scary. Or, does it?

It seems Marissa Mayer has created a firestorm. Everybody is weighing in on Yahoo’s new policy eliminating telecommuting. Some are for it. Many are against it. But, no commentator has addressed the most important and fundamental issues for considering a major organizational change. “What are they doing now and why?” Whether it has been legal advising or Information Management consulting, I have worked with groups and before I would ever consider making a recommendation for a change, I find out what they are currently doing, and why. In the case of Yahoo, I’d like to know how many people currently telecommute? Do they video conference? How often do they make it to the office for face-to-face meetings? Without knowing the answers to these important questions, it would be ridiculous to criticize the move. Moreover, just as any experienced attorney or consultant could, I recognize many reasons why this may be a very smart move.

First, lessons from the lawyer. Meeting and speaking face to face matters. Any attorney involved with depositions or interviews learns how to recognize truthful and untruthful answers and behavior. We can read body language. We hear non-denial denials. We may even employ a few tricks to make people uncomfortable and more likely to expose themselves. Can social media tools and collaborative tools work for teams? Certainly. Do they help with innovation and productivity. Absolutely. But I believe they work better when they are used to enhance working relationships that have been sparked, if not forged, in person. On the phone quite a few people will sound like they are on your side and support your plan. In person, your results may vary.

Second, a lesson as a consultant. It is not just lawyers who examine body language and styles. Everybody does it. As a consultant, perhaps even more so than as a lawyer, speaking with people in person invites a more complete exchange of information. I have blogged my opinion that in my Information Management consulting, video conferencing was far superior to telephone conferencing, because you can see who understands you, who may have questions, and who is checking their email. I never completed a video conference and wondered if I got accurate and complete information from the participants. I knew. With telephone conferences, it is the opposite. I seldom feel I have heard complete and accurate information. Why wouldn’t telecommuting have similar shortcomings.

Third, for a lesson from an observer of “Change Management.” When I have worked with groups (I was going to describe them as collaborative teams, but they are not always collaborative nor teams) there is always a bit of discovery and, as I like to refer to it, “lessons on the side.” One person will learn about a better way to search the company knowledge bank, or, people will discover they have a similar background from another company. I have never experienced that off-topic bonding over the phone, or, even over the computer. This is what Marissa Mayer alludes to in her memo when promoting working side-by-side.

Additionally, sometimes an organization needs to shake things up. The articles written about the memo, make it sound rather dictatorial and extreme. If you read the actual text, it is quite mildly worded and persuasive. Never the less, it will get everybody at Yahoo talking. And, for a company that has been criticized for floundering and meandering for quite a few years now, that has to be a good thing. Even if, they ultimately reverse or modify the course, it will have engaged and possibly united many of the workers.

For those of you who read this article and miss the point, and are about to ban telecommuting at your place of business, let me remind you that getting people in the office together does not, in and of itself, guarantee collaboration and increased productivity. In fact, there are many companies that do not have telecommuting and still maintain zero innovation and collaboration among the employees. However, given Ms. Mayer’s experience at Google, I do not think that will be the issue at Yahoo.

Lastly, is it legal? For Ms. Mayer’s sake, I hope so. Depending on a company’s employment agreements and stated policies, it is possible there will be legal consequences to a change that may effect many employees who relied upon the ability to telecommute. Once again though, I must practice as I preach. So, without knowing the details of the existing agreements, policies, and specific state labor laws, it would be pure speculation on my part to reach a conclusion on whether the move is legal. Hopefully, Marissa Mayer did as you should do before implementing a change to your company’s worker policies and consult with a knowledgeable attorney….

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