Kara Swisher

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Survey Says: Despite Yahoo Ban, Most Tech Companies Support Work-From-Home for Employees

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Last week, a fierce debate erupted over a range of social networks and in the media about a story we posted on Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s new decree that employees at the Silicon Valley Internet company would no longer be able to work from home.

In a sometimes awkwardly worded internal memo I posted from Yahoo HR head Jackie Reses, the company rolled out the new rule — pushed through by Mayer — which requires that Yahoo employees who work remotely relocate to company facilities by June 1.

“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” read the memo to employees. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

The goal of Mayer to cure what ails Yahoo: Reviving a moribund and enervated workforce that has struggled to innovate and excel over many years. One of the many problems has been the liberal use of work-from-home policies that have been woefully mismanaged to create a culture that is simply not energized.

But, unless I am reading the memo wrong, the ban is not just limited to those who have arrangements to work from home full time — which number in the hundreds — but also employees who take one or two days a week at home.

Top sources told me that Mayer has been particularly irked about Yahoo parking lots that are slow to fill in the morning and quick to empty by 5 pm — which is atypical at other tech companies such as Google. (Mayer was a longtime exec at the search giant.)

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At first, she tried to change culture in ways that rained down tasty perks on employees — such as free food and smartphones. Mayer has also been practical, instituting please-be-here Friday afternoon FYI weekly meetings and stricter performance reviews.

But she is now inevitably doling out more unpleasant medicine to the troops, starting with the banning of work from home, which has caused a big ruckus both internally and externally.

Some inside the company are clearly appalled, especially since it might more severely impact working mothers.

“When a working mother is standing behind this, you know we are a long way from a culture that will honor the thankless sacrifices that women too often make,” read one email I got from an internal source, referring to the recent birth of Mayer’s baby.

Many others at Yahoo’s Sunnyvale, Calif., HQ pointed to the nursery Mayer had built — for which she paid personally — next to her office as a perk others at Yahoo do not get.

“I wonder what would happen if my wife brought our kids and nanny to work and set em up in the cube next door?” joked a husband of another employee who will be losing her work-from-home privileges.

Yahoo employees, as far as I can see from its company careers page, offers the typical Dependent Day Care Flexible Spending Account, where staff can pay “dependent care expenses, such as day care or after-school care, with pre-tax dollars.”

While it is fair to raise the issue of how employees will cope given the sudden change in HR policy, others also think that limiting work at home is a good idea because it galvanizes culture and creates a spirit of collaboration that has been missing at Yahoo for far too long.

“Marissa is doing what good leaders do,” wrote one person on Twitter. “Making sure her Yahoo team is communicating & working TOGETHER.”

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That is actually a sentiment expressed by Google CFO Patrick Pichette at a recent talk in Australia, when asked about telecommuting at Google:

“The surprising question we get is: ‘How many people telecommute at Google?’ And our answer is: ‘As few as possible’ … There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer ‘What do you think of this?’ These are [the] magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of your company, of your own personal development and [of] building much stronger communities.”

That said, officially, many Googlers are allowed and even encouraged to work at home. The company told me when asked about work-from-home policies: “We do not have a formal policy and leave Googlers to use good judgment.”

It is the same for Facebook, which confirmed a “policy to provide flexibility as work permits.” In fact, one exec at the social network giant noted to me that its entire camera app was built from an engineer’s garage, with the group staying away from the office as long as they wanted to build it from home.

Business networking site LinkedIn also said it had “no formal policy at present,” but noted that many employees work from home full-time and part-time as the situation warrants and in consultation with managers.

It goes on and on like that throughout the tech scene, part of an ethos of letting tech talent make its own rules — from what they wear to when and where they work — that is deeply ingrained in the culture.

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A Hewlett-Packard spokesperson said of the tech giant: “We do not ban [work from home] and many HP people do it … it is not at all an issue at HP and hasn’t been for years. Some folks have a regular schedule, while others can do it from time to time with the okay of their supervisors.”

An AOL spokesperson said the company doesn’t ban work from home.

A Netflix spokesperson referenced a well-known premium video company’s job deck, which stressed a “freedom and responsibility culture” and notes, “We don’t measure people by how many hours they work or how much they are in the office. We do care about accomplishing great work.”

Twitter had a different twist, but still supports working from home. Said a spokesperson: “We believe there are significant tangible and intangible benefits when employees are working under the same roof. We also recognize that every so often it’s important to be able to work remotely, and we allow for that flexibility.”

A Cisco spokesperson said the networking company also allows it, but it has to be approved by a direct manager: “It is certainly utilized by those employees who earn it. And, of course, with our collaborative suite of technologies like Webex (with video) and telepresence it is the next best thing to being there in person.”

A Microsoft spokesman said that the software company “offers flexible work schedules for all employees.”

Perhaps one of the best companies for a long time in the telecommuting space has been IBM. From its corporate Web page, also touting the environmental benefits:

“IBM was one of the first global companies to pioneer programs to reduce employee commuting. It has sustained these programs for nearly two decades. Two key aspects are its (a) work-at-home program and (b) mobile employees program. Today, more than 128,000 (29 percent) of employees globally participate in one of these programs. In 2011, in just the U.S. alone, IBM’s work-at-home program conserved approximately 6.4 million gallons of fuel and avoided more than 50,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions.”

Startups are much the same.

Said an Airbnb spokesperson of the online housing rentals site: “It’s a flexible policy and managers determine what’s appropriate on a case-by-case basis.”

At location startup Foursquare, a spokesperson said, “Our policy is to allow for ‘flexible work hours’ — and that applies to both the hours you work, and where you work from. While we don’t have any dedicated remote employees, our folks do work from home on occasion and we’re fine with that.”

Private social networking company Path is much the same, according to a spokesperson: “Path has a work-from-home policy. The manager and employee work out the details together.”

The only company I queried that did not respond immediately is Apple, which has been known for a long time to have much tighter rules with its employees. I will update when I hear from the company.

I also have emails in to Amazon, which is already known for flexible working policies.

But, overall, Mayer is forging new ground with her work-from-home ban. Whether that is enough to turbocharge the Yahoo culture is anybody’s guess.


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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle