Out of your PJ’s, you slackers! Yahoo orders workers back to the office

Telecommuting (Photo credit: ScottMJones)

You can hear the sighs from here.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s new CEO, has ordered all remote workers, those at home in their bunny slippers and sweatpants, back to work in the office.

You know, where they can make sure you’re being productive:

A memo explaining the policy change, from the company’s human resources department, says face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more collaborative culture — a hallmark of Google’s approach to its business.

In trying to get back on track, Yahoo is taking on one of the country’s biggest workplace issues: whether the ability to work from home, and other flexible arrangements, leads to greater productivity or inhibits innovation and collaboration. Across the country, companies like Aetna, Booz Allen Hamilton and Zappos.com are confronting these trade-offs as they compete to attract and retain the best employees.

Bank of America, for example, which had a popular program for working remotely, decided late last year to require employees in certain roles to come back to the office.

Employees, especially younger ones, expect to be able to work remotely, analysts say. And over all the trend is toward greater workplace flexibility.

Still, said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray & Christmas, an outplacement and executive coaching firm, “A lot of companies are afraid to let their workers work from home some of the time or all of the time because they’re afraid they’ll lose control.”

Excuse my language, but I call bullshit.

Every time a company wants employees all perky and visible and audible and crammed into cubes they insist it’s all about the innovation.

Yeah, right.

I worked for a martinet at my first New York City magazine job, who insisted I be at my desk “and working!” by 9:00 a.m. sharp, even though taking a slightly later train in from my home in the suburbs meant arriving at 9:15 or so.

It’s a power game, a way to demonstrate — just in case you forgot! — who’s in charge of your life.

I’ve been working, alone at home, since losing my last staff job, at the New York Daily News, the nation’s sixth-largest newspaper, in June 2006. Alone for almost seven years, working — yes, even as I type this — in sweat pants. Yet I’ve managed to produce a well-reviewed memoir, dozens of newspaper and magazine stories, edit others’ work, consult, fly around the country on well-paid speaking gigs.

Productive? I dunno. Look at my retirement savings account. I’d say so.

Every morning I get up and no one anywhere, tells me what to do or when to do it or how to do it. I have not one penny of income guaranteed to me. I have to hustle it up every single month, a minimum of $2,000 a month, just to meet my basic bills.

Any one of you who works in an office knows this — just because an employee’s butt is in a chair in some manager’s clear sightline doesn’t mean they’re not lazy, ass-kissing or politicking or backstabbing.

Innovative? Collaborative? Cooperative? You wish!

With a phone call or email to the right colleague — whether in Nova Scotia or California — I can get serious, smart help and advice. At the Daily News, despite every effort to be collegial, I was ignored by colleagues and managers alike.

New York Daily News front page on August 9
New York Daily News front page on August 9 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My husband commutes every day to The New York Times, at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street. It costs him about $600 a month to go to work in an office: $200+ for his train pass; $200 month for the taxis that take him to and from the train station in our town (too far to walk); $200+ for subsidized cafeteria meals at work. Plus commercial laundering of his shirts.

He also has six meetings every day; putting out a newspaper like the Times, like many enterprises, does require incessant discussion and teamwork.

Yes, some workers are indeed quite incapable of self-discipline and do better work under others’ supervision. Some workplaces really do thrive on having lots of smart people in the same building to rub brains and bump into one another in the hallways and suddenly come up with some fabulous, profitable new solution.

But mostly they want to Own Your Ass.

I spent a day last spring at Google reporting this story for the Times. It was a little creepy — OK, a lot– how much they wanted their hip employees, hoodies and all, to be there 24/7, providing them with free food, laundry rooms on-site, even a hair-stylist.

In the 21st century, long past the Industrial Revolution that took us away from artisanal work and attached us all to machines inside large buildings, here we are again.

Plus ca change, mes chers…

32 thoughts on “Out of your PJ’s, you slackers! Yahoo orders workers back to the office

  1. The only — and I mean THE ONLY — credible reason for requiring staff to be in the office is to justify real estate and other operational costs. My partner works for a multinational IT firm and every so often there is a “we need to see your pretty face” email that goes around, but the understanding is that it’s only because management needs to justify the square footage (metrage?) given to work teams. I file any other rationale under Own Your Ass.

    1. Great point! We need to make a long list of their “reasons.”

      I waste so little time in my workday that it’s pathetic. I have to force myself (!), common among the self-employed, to take a full hour for a decent lunch and to NOT work at night or on weekends. When you have the autonomy of managing your own time, I suspect most intelligent adults treat it carefully and just get on with things…

  2. Trust and control, or a new manager new broom attitude? They all want more for less, whatever way you work. I do more in “work” self employed than ever I did sat in an office.


  3. I have to agree with you Caitlin; it’s not fair to require workers to show up at work like that, at least not without checking people’s individual circumstances first (like if they’re single mothers or taking care of sick relatives or have medical conditions that prevent them from commuting). Besides, my mother’s partner sometimes works from home, and she’s extremely productive.
    Even if I have to go into work because my job requires it, I know some people work better outside an office environment. You’re a pretty good example of that yourself, Caitlin.

    1. Rami, I do love your idealism! 🙂

      No one in the corporate world could possibly keep their jobs if they stopped seeing us as a mass of “labor” and instead tried to accommodate us as individuals. It’s bad enough for those without kids working in offices, as parents may get to leave early and singletons are often expected to pick up the slack — as though only having children is enough of a “pass”.

      I’m happy to work alone and, even in offices (when I had one, with a door) usually kept it closed so I could just focus and get on with it. I’m lousy with interruptions, I admit. The freelance stress of “Where’s the $ coming from?” is balanced by the seven weeks (so far) vacation I have booked for 2013. I will likely work, even when in a different location. Even that is a welcome break! Everything is a trade-off.

      Millions of people work in industries, (schools, hospitals, public service, retail, food service), where there IS no option but serving on-site at the pleasure of their employers’ whims. Retail is especially abusive in this regard.

  4. I work for the UK Civil Service and at the moment they’re starting to encourage people to work from home more in an attempt to be able to sell off expensive London office space and thus save taxpayers money. I don’t think anyone works from home all day every day, the idea is more that people do it once or twice a week on a rotation basis and then people hot desk when they’re in the office.

    I think results vary. Some people use it as an excuse to slack, for some it makes no difference, others are actually more productive. I flatter myself that I fall into the last category. When there’s no one chatting to you or popping over to your desk with a question, you can blast through the to do list or settle down to really get your teeth into a big project.

    I don’t think I’d ever want to do it more than a few times a week though and I don’t think that would be appropriate for many people. People who do it more regularly get on my nerves as it’s next to impossible to invite them to meetings – whatever anyone says, tele or even videoconferencing just don’t seem the same to me. Similarly, the sort of question you can ask someone in thirty seconds if you bump into them at the kitchen is always ends up much more formal and complex if you’ve got to call them.

    think most people benefit from a bit of interaction and team building is easier if the team knows each other personally. I also do think there’s a bit of the learning from each other and sharing advice – in my case I couldn’t ask around on the internet as lots of the work is government restricted, and I imagine the same would be true for people working on commercially sensitive projects.

    At the end of the day though, companies need to recognise that people are different and not aim for a one size fits all solution. Plus they should judge people on results – it shouldn’t be too hard to find out whether home workers are getting things done to deadline. If they are, then great, leave them to it. If not, pull the offenders back to the office (or get rid) – don’t punish everyone.

  5. Uggh offices! Not for me. I think some people work well in defined spaces and at certain times. The problem is that they, managers, expect everyone to have the same requirements for productivity. Same time, same environment etc. We don’t. My work is best done at 2:00am, not so good for office work. It would be best to determine who works well in an office and who doesn’t and then assign things from there.

      1. It would have to work on self-selection unless there were managers who were capable of acknowledging that others need different things to be productive. Unfortunately, that is a dream and tyrants are in charge 😦

  6. I can’t agree completely, though I do agree that for some people, working from home is not only productive, but can also be just as innovated.

    But there are others that don’t. As you said, they need a supervisor and they need feedback from their co-workers. I had a friend who tried working for herself and it was a complete failure – she couldn’t focus.

    I’ve worked for myself for over 8 years (currently employed with a ‘normal’ job), and I did very well for myself. However, I was (as you are) very motivated to do so because I was paying my paycheck. Besides, when I did slack off, I wasn’t stealing anyone’s time. My clients got charged for the hours I worked – period.

    The situation for Yahoo is a little different. I have no idea about each of their work ethics, and I am sure they are great employees, but these folks were not responsible for paying for their own salary. I suspect that the temptation to work on other things or do non-work related tasks, without incurring a cost to themselves, might have proved to great.

    Either way, the whole Google thing does sound scary. I don’t like that idea at all. What I think would be great to see is smart managers able to recognize what works best for their team and be flexible enough with their schedule to allow some to work in, some out or a combination of both (my preference).

    I guess it boils down to trust and respect, something that is lacking in a lot of workplaces.

      1. You know, the fact is, some folks are not particularly responsible. I am afraid to say that I have witnessed behavior (in both the public and private sector) from my fellow employees that is shocking. There are many who do not have the same work ethic as you or I, and they *definitely* need supervising. Sad, but true.

        A fellow colleague of mine once described a situation when he supervised a number of engineers, scientists and technicians, and had the wonderful task of informing them that their company internet privileges would be taken away if they didn’t stop watching porn.

        The IT department had documented that they all were watching porn roughly 70% of their work day. (This was before the advent of smart firewalls, I presume.)

      2. Wow. That’s some seriously messed up workforce! Good point.

        In journalism, it’s perfectly obvious who’s slacking off — you are either producing stories (with your name on them) or you’re not. It keeps the peer pressure high.

  7. Provocative piece here. Like most, I’ve had varying degrees of autonomy throughout my career. There are pros to having everyone under one roof. Sometimes face-to-face communication (e.g., popping in an office to get an answer rather than wasting time playing phone tag or drafting an email) is more effective and efficient. But I would happily spend more time writing an email if it means saving time forgoing a commute and working in my pjs.

    As an educator, I’ve had the opportunity to teach classes in both a physical classroom and through distance learning. Students learn very different skills with the same content in the different formats. There is always a trade off.

    1. I agree, of course — it’s much quicker and more pleasant to have quick face to face meetings. (But how many of us are subjected to long meetings with little point?) I had a writers’ lunch yesterday with four other women my level and it was such a rare and pleasant thing to trade notes in person! I’ve skedded a lunch in the city (i.e. an hr’s schlep each way, plus subway) to meet an editor. I don’t do nearly enough of that sort of thing.

      I’d love to hear more about these learning differences.

      Good to hear from you again. Long time, no comment!

      1. I’ve taught a writing-intensive clinical course to seniors in both formats (online or in a physical classroom). It’s a tricky course to teach because seniors have already had two years of courses in the major, but have yet to work with an actual client, so their content knowledge far exceeds their practical knowledge. In other words, they think they know way more than they actually do. In either format I have students do research and problem solve their way through a series of case studies based on clients I’ve seen. I throw them the real-world curve balls (multiple diagnoses, partial/conflicting information, ethical questions, etc.) that I’ve faced with these clients to see how they handle them and to expose the gaps in their knowledge.

        In both formats I assign readings related to the cases. Students must also do independent research. In the physical class students use the class time to work in groups to work through a series of questions about the case. Group members are assigned roles (e.g., leader, researchers, time-keeper, recorder) that they rotate. Each role has certain responsibilities which are outlined and explained. In this format, beyond the content knowledge they gain, students get experience leading group discussions, negotiating roles, sharing responsibility for projects, and discussing ideas — important skills for those who will go on to work as part of a team in a hospital or school setting.

        In the online format, the same work was done independently and we used discussion boards to work through the cases collaboratively. Everything was done through reading/writing instead of oral transmission of ideas. In this format students had to do much more reading and writing than they are accustomed to doing. Many students in the online class reported that it forced them to develop better time management skills and self-discipline — also important skills for clinicians.

  8. Agreed agreed agreed! I worked for a large corporate who did the same thing, spouting the same propaganda. I hate when they do that. Not exert control, because they pay me so i suppose they have that claim, but the lies that they tell about why they’re doing it. I mean, seriously, are the guys at the top so disconnected that they haven’t figured out that people can see through their BS immediately?

  9. Great post – I am lucky to have a contracted full time position which has no other requirements other than to be there for classes and to submit attendance sheets and grades at the end of the semester. This is my security, and I need it. Fortunately it pays well for the amount of time I have to be there, and I’m free to use the rest of my time to find extra work or spend time doing things I like doing, like writing or spending time with famiily.

    Often I wonder if I’d be better off with a better paid full time job with more benefits. Sometimes hustling for work can get to you. I’m sure you know all about it.

    1. It’s such a trade-off.

      I don’t hate working in an office and I do find this life terribly lonely — the cost of commuting (time and $$$) is annoying and the biggest issue, for me, is the lack of vacation time American employers offer. I want 3-4 weeks off every year (and usually take 5 or 6 at least) and that’s asking them for the moon. Americans have a persistent fantasy that Being Productive is the single best thing anyone could possibly do with their life. I disagree, even as I am usually privately — and when on staff — pretty damn productive! In my last staff job — after being laid off for lack of productivity — I had produced more than 60 stories (at a daily newspaper) within 11 months.

      Like that…:-)

      1. I’m fortunate enough to live walking distance (and a short drive on a lazy/wet day) from work. I sacrifice post work quality of life for sanity producing morning stroll in. I also have a lot of free time but it’s not comparable with people in real jobs.

        Ireland however provides 21 days a year holiday, which works out as a month, if you include weekends. I think that’s ok, But only if you can take a long three week break, which many employers won’t allow.

        Anyway, what is productivity? There’s getting lots of the jobs done, as opposed to getting what you’re supposed to get done, but done well. I prefer the second one, but I’m not winning any battles here.

      2. I think it ends up being a much more primal, unspoken battle — between our wish for autonomy, (over our time, work conditions, expectations, values, ethics) and that of the employer who hires us. They win, de facto, no matter how differently we feel. We trade our labor for their pay, but it’s much more subtle than that.

        A long three week break is amazing. I took a month off in June 2012 (although I did do some work) and our last long trip of 3 weeks was May 2005. That’s ridiculous…Jose could take 3 weeks off but we just don’t have the $$$$$ for that much time spent in hotels, eating out or on the road. I wish we did.

        He’ll be in Tucson, Arizona for two weeks in May teaching and I plan to take advantage of the hotel room by going out there as well. I can work, if I have to, but I love the Southwest, so I’ll also have the pleasure of a break from daily routine.

      3. That is true. I think part of surviving that battle lies in knowing that it is just a job and you can, and you can, leave and find something else if you want to.

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